The Blasphemy Brigade Strikes Again

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Former Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjaha Purnama aka Ahok gestures after losing the election. (Photo: BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)

Write to the Indonesia Christian Legal Society to express your concern over Ahok and ask they do all they can to secure his release.  Email them at: [email protected]

In yesterday’s election for governor of Jakarta, in Indonesia, incumbent Basuki Thahaja “Ahok” Purnama lost to former culture and education minister Anies Baswedan 41% to 58%.

The election was remarkable for the cloud of extremism which overshadowed the race. The victor, Anies, made a calculated appeal to target Muslim conservative voters during the second round run-off campaign and this decision is thought to have greatly helped his victory.

Ahok, who is both ethnically Chinese and a Christian was accused of blasphemy early in the contest because of a video in which he argued that a verse of the Quran which hardliners say prohibits Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim actually does not prohibit it.

As a result of the video tens of thousands of extremists were mobilized by the hardline Islam Defenders Front and they marched on the presidential palace in Jakarta shouting (among calls for his arrest) “Kill Ahok for insulting Islam.”

A splinter group of the protest engaged in clashes with the police.

This violent reaction to even an allegation of blasphemy is seen by extremists across the world. The murder of Mashal Khan in Pakistan last week is a grim reminder of the swift “justice” meted out by such mobs when they feel insulted.

Leading clerics called for him to be arrested and he was formally charged with blasphemy. The trial began in December but has dragged on for months.

Cases like this recur constantly. They have a very chilling effect on the discourse surrounding extremism and on the ability of Muslim activists to fight back effectively against extremist movements. Additionally, they empower corrupt and power hungry politicians to use blasphemy allegations, however spurious, as a means of silencing their opponents and gaining support, thus exacerbating the problem.

By forcing humanists, free thinkers and minorities to keep their heads down and shy away from critiquing problematic ideas, extremists have been able to seize control of the discourse. This means that non-extremists, even when they hold elected office, are constantly on the back foot.

Prosecutors have now recommended that Ahok be sentenced to two years’ probation.

“This trial, in the first place, should never have existed,” Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “It is very political, it was used to corner Ahok. Indonesia should scrap the blasphemy law, in fact Indonesia should release all people who are in prison for this … law.”

Until blasphemy laws are done away with and free speech is secure, the struggle against radical Islam will hardly make any progress. U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is in Indonesia today speaking with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. We hope he will address the blasphemy law while there.

Write to the Indonesia Christian Legal Society to express your concern over Ahok and ask they do all they can to secure his release.  Email them at: [email protected]

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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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