Purnama’s blasphemy trial: A tragedy of Shakespearian proportions

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall,” said Shakespeare in Measure for Measure. Definitions of sin and virtue are subjective, but Shakespeare, with his tragedies filled with intrigue and double-dealing, would have been right at home with the case of non-active Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, now underway at the North Jakarta District Court.

If the bard was writing the Purnama case, he might frame it as follows: A prince of Italy relies on his trusted aide the Moor, who balances the books, political and financial, and generally gets things done as governor of the capital. The Moor, however, complains loudly in the public square that the Inquisition is out of control and is being used against him.

The Catholic Church, struggling to gain a foothold in the principality where older ideas of Roman justice prevail, senses an opportunity. It attacks the Moor for speaking out on an issue beyond his province, demanding that he be expelled from Christian lands.

The nobles of the court, also sensing opportunity, connive to overthrow the Moor in order that they can move closer to the Prince to support their own interests. Rival princes meddle, recognizing opportunity in a scandal that impacts the Prince. The Moor is condemned to the very court of the Inquisition that he so foolishly spoke out against.

Purnama’s case is not, then, merely a question of whether he blasphemed against Islam. It is a political opportunity for opponents of the status quo, and particularly the proponents of the school of thought that Indonesia should be a nation ruled by shariah law.


Blasphemy or not?
What got the governor into trouble was a speech in Thousand Islands regency late in September in which he stated that “you don’t have to vote for me — because you’ve been lied to by those using (the Koran’s) Surah al-Maidah verse 51.” A brief video clip of the statement – with the word ‘using’ deleted – was posted on YouTube, setting off the storm demanding his prosecution.

In the court of public opinion, Purnama, also known as Ahok, has already been found guilty. While many have accepted his numerous apologies for having dragged religion into the issue of his re-election campaign, a survey commissioned by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) found last week that 45.2% of respondents still regarded Purnama’s remarks as blasphemous. That despite only 11.5% of respondents stating that they clearly understood what he had said.

The lack of knowledge demonstrated by the respondents to that poll has been amply countered by the Islamic hard-line, who have pounced on the statement as evidence that Purnama is not fit to serve as governor of the Muslim-majority city.

A report from the ABC quotes cleric Habib Muhsin Alathas as calling Purnama “the son of Satan,” adding that Christians should never have authority over Muslims – the message of Surah al-Maidah verse 51.

With that sort of rhetoric doing the rounds, and hard-liners outside the court room reported to be demanding the harshest possible sentence, the prospects of an acquittal for Purnama seem remote.

But was his statement blasphemous? Greg Fealy, associate professor at the Australian National University, was one of a number of expert witnesses who testified during the police investigation. He has stated that two-thirds of the expert witnesses did not believe there was any substance to the charge. The police, while forwarding the case to prosecutors, admitted that there were deep divisions over the case among their investigators.

In essence, Purnama’s defense is likely to rest on the word ‘using’. His lawyers are expected to argue that Purnama was not in any way blaspheming about the Koran, merely stating that the verse in question was being used by certain elements to erode support for his re-election.

Many Muslims believe that even this was out of line. While many believe that his apology should be accepted, they argue that the suggestion that the Koran could be used as a political tool is in itself blasphemous. And the record of blasphemy trials in Indonesia is such that acquittal is extremely unlikely.


Other currents
So if Purnama is the Moor, who are the others trying to take political advantage of the situation? Foremost among them, of course, is the hard-line Muslim movement that wants to see Indonesia become an Islamic state.

It is ironic that the charge is being led by a man regarded by many as little more than a thug, Habib Rizieq Shihab, head of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The organization is best known for its violent attacks on moderates and for its habit of trashing bars and other places of ‘immorality’ in what is often seen as a tactic used as part of its protection racket. Shihab is a convenient front man for other elements grouped under the National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI).

Less visible are the political interests who seek to gain from the ousting of Purnama from the Jakarta governorship. In neutralizing Purnama, they also undermine the position of his major ally, President Joko Widodo.

These interests are many and varied. They undoubtedly include the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which with its Islamist agenda was clearly a strong supporter of the major rallies demanding the arrest of Purnama.

Other political groupings had no religious motive in wanting to see Purnama down and out, only purely pragmatic aims. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is seen as keen to establish a dynasty, with his son Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono and running mate Sylviani Murni now leading the polls for the Jakarta governor race.

Prabowo Subianto, another leading political actor, was happy to invite President Widodo to his ranch at Bogor and then visit the president at the Palace. The former general is no hard-line Muslim, but will nevertheless be happy to seize any opportunity for political advantage ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Then there was the collection of ‘plotters’ charged with treason who were allegedly hoping to piggy-back on the December 2 mass protest and achieve the overthrow of the government. There have been rumors of others – not least Armed Forces (TNI) chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo – trying to gain traction from the mess created by Purnama.

President Joko Widodo, after actively working to diffuse the Islamist push through meetings with groups dedicated to the state ideology of Pancasila and the slogan of Unity in Diversity, remains solidly in charge of the country. For the time being, no single figure on the political landscape has what it takes to successfully wrest the presidency from him in 2019.


Limited support for Islamic state
Despite the hue and cry from the hard-liners, and the irrefutable evidence of mass support, particularly at the December 2 rally, for action against Purnama, the hard-liners are unlikely to achieve their goals.

In allowing Shihab onto the same stage at the December 2 rally in Jakarta, Widodo has had to acknowledge the existence of the hard-line movement and now he and his allies must find a way to contain them.

But political Islam has never succeeded in winning majority support. At general elections throughout Indonesia’s independent history, Islamic-based parties have never succeeded in winning more than 35% of the popular vote, that level of support often being divided among a number of parties representing vastly different styles of Islam.

Under Suharto’s thumb, with the Muslim parties herded together under the United Development Party (PPP), it won 27.5% of the vote in the first three-way poll in 1977, and that level of support slowly eroded up until the arrival of the democratic era and the formation of a clutch of new Islamic-based parties. Their combined vote tallies since then have not done anything to prove that they can create a majority.

As a result, Shihab and his friends have to practice megaphone campaigning, whipping up the fervor of the faithful. The government, however, was tough enough to contain his political message severely on December 2, transforming a protest rally into a prayer meeting.

At that rally, Shihab was able to gloat in the glory of sitting on the same stage as Widodo. He is Indonesia’s modern-day equivalent of Savonarola, the Italian monk known for his moralistic diatribes and his intention to banish the secular art that was flourishing in Italy at the time of the Renaissance to the bonfires.

He ended badly, having upset the Pope with his campaigning against the luxuries of the church, and was hanged before his own bonfire was set aflame under him. Who knows how long Shihab will be able to command the forces of the hard-right?


Greater focus on Islamists
Like it or not, for all of Widodo’s work to cement the foundations of traditional Indonesian society, the hard-line Muslim factions have gained ground. Given the unlikely outcome of success through the electoral process, more tub-thumping and intimidation can be expected, as the hard-liners sense that the tide is turning in their direction.

ANU’s Fealy, in an article in the Indonesia at Melbourne website, downplays the support for the hard-liners. Acknowledging that removing Purnama was just one objective of GNPF-MUI, he states that this was just one part of the wider objective of Islamization of Indonesia. He does however have reservations about the level of success the anti-Purnama campaign has achieved in terms of this wider objective.

“There are good reasons to doubt that (the December 2) rally marks some conservative surge. To begin with, only a minority appeared to be affiliated with known Islamist groups or drawn to the more ideological Islamist messages in the rally… For the great majority, this was primarily a religious event, both in the sense of defending their faith against insult and also in expressing their piety through a mass prayer at a nationally symbolic site. They appeared little interested in fundamental changes to the role of Islam in the state, and many with whom I and other researchers spoke rejected on principle attempts to Islamize the Constitution and restrict non-Muslim rights.”

And while the hard-liners will try to maintain the momentum, other forces are ranged against them. Even Bandung, West Java mayor Ridwan Kamil, up until now a supporter of Islamist agendas, has told the hard-line Ahlus Sunnah Defenders (PAS) mass organization to apologize for disturbing a pre-Christmas service in the West Java capital on December 6.

And then there is the TNI. A senior official in the Army intelligence agency BAIS told Concord that the Islamist agenda will not be tolerated. And while he admitted that there is a small Islamist grouping within the military, it is not in a position to influence policy. “Our recruitment process is designed to screen out any candidate who has apparent Islamist views. They are immediately rejected,” he said.


The losers
The main losers amid all the controversy are clearly the ethnic Chinese. After hoping that they were being more accepted by the mainstream, they have once more been forced to withdraw into the shadows. There is general agreement that Purnama’s outspoken ways have boomeranged not only against him, but on all members of his ethnic minority.

The minor rioting after the November 4 rally once again raised fears that the ethnic Chinese minority was going to be targeted, as it was in 1998, when hundreds were killed and a program of systematic rape of ethnic Chinese women was conducted by elements who to this day have not been brought to justice.

Indonesia’s tradition of tolerant religion has also lost much. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and other traditionalist religious groupings are appalled by the increased public profile of their enemies in the hard-line movement. For years such groups have been concerned by the creeping influence of the Wahhabi movement in Indonesia, as represented by Shihab and his colleagues.

It is remarkable that many hundreds of supposedly devout Muslims should have turned up outside the court to monitor the Purnama trial, when no-one has protested about the plot to bomb the changing of the guard at the presidential palace that was thwarted by the Police counter-terrorism unit Detachment 88. Those outraged by a minor slip in religious ethics by Purnama apparently have no concerns that the most radical of their numbers wanted to send a woman to her death in the pursuit of the same aims that they espouse.

As for the silent majority who reject the Islamist agenda, one attempt to galvanize them into action failed miserably on December 4, when a few thousand who gathered at Jakarta’s National Monument did little but leave an awful mess in their wake. The danger to Indonesia’s traditional system of government is that the silent majority will remain silent, while allowing hard-liners to chip away at the foundations of Indonesia’s government and society.

The authorities also have to do more than just stand by, as they so clearly did during the Yudhoyono presidency. In a positive sign, President Joko Widodo has now signed a government regulation (PP) that provides technical guidelines related to Law No. 17/2013 on Mass Organizations, according to an announcement on the Cabinet Secretary’s website on December 8.

“The main point of the proposed revision is to decrease the number of regulatory steps needed to dismiss a mass organization,” said Soedarmo, Director General for Politics and Government at the Home Affairs Ministry. While Soedarmo insisted that the new regulation is not connected in any way to the mass rallies organized by the GNPF-MUI, it is unlikely that that is entirely true.

What is needed now is a clear statement from the government and the security apparatus that it will not tolerate the aggressive attack on mainstream Indonesian values. Many believe such action is sorely overdue. While few would welcome a revival of the constraints that Suharto’s New Order regime imposed on society, action is needed to demonstrate that the country cannot be hijacked by what in reality is a small, if noisy, minority.

Keith Loveard is a senior analyst at Concord Consulting.

This article was first published for clients of Concord Review on Dec. 13, 2016. Free trial subscriptions are available.