Indonesia: Where Blasphemy Charges Can Destroy Careers

Police in Indonesia have formally named Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (commonly known as Ahok), the governor of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, as a suspect in a blasphemy case.

As a Christian, he is the first non-Muslim governor of Jakarta in 50 years as well as being ethnically Chinese, a minority which faces discrimination in Indonesia. He is currently running for re-election as governor on an anti-corruption platform.

He was accused of blasphemy by Islamists after he said that a verse of the Quran which hardliners say prohibits Muslims from voting for non-Muslims in fact does not prohibit it.  

The Islam Defenders Front, an Islamist group which organized demonstrations against him, filed the police report.

On November 4, tens of thousands of Islamists marched to the presidential palace in Jakarta demanding the removal and prosecution of Ahok for blasphemy. Later on the protests turned violent, with a faction assaulting police and screaming, “Kill Ahok for insulting Islam.”

Now that he has been listed as a suspect, prosecutors will be able to charge him for blasphemy. If convicted he will face up to five years in prison.

The ease with which hardliners have been able to use such a minor incident to seriously jeopardize a man’s political career is staggering and shows the sway that such hardline views exercise over many people even in less extreme places like Indonesia.

Even if the motivation for his persecution stems not from what he said about the Quran but from a desire to impede his anti-corruption policies, the fact that his opponents are able to use a charge of blasphemy as a weapon is a serious injustice that stands in the way of an open and free society.