Friday’s rally (02/12/16) in Jakarta was the latest in an escalating series of mass rallies responding to mounting opposition to Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaya Purnama. Ahok is Jakarta’s current Governor, replacing President Jokowi after his election in 2014, and is Governor-elect hopeful in next year’s gubernatorial election. Protesters are seeking Ahok’s dismissal and imprisonment, with some sources placing upwards of 500,000 people in Jakarta’s streets.
Given his Christian-Chinese background and a growing set of public ideas running counter to the Islamic mainstream, much of the discontent flows along ethnic and religious divides. The latest controversy involves Ahok’s appearance in a video criticising (and inadvertently disrespecting) a particular verse of the Quran (Al-Maidah 51), a violation under Indonesia’s blasphemy regime that holds a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The Fatwa issued by the National Ulama Council (MUI) and calls for legal action by the key proponents like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), amount to an open rejection of secular opinions within a country dominated by the Islamic faith.
Such intense discontent certainly marks a striking point of contest within contemporary Indonesian politics. For starters, the aggrieved and violent reactions expose deep racial and religious tensions permeating Indonesian society. As a Christian and an ethnic Chinese, Ahok’s religion and ethnicity make him an easy target for a Muslim majority population. But this is about more than the politics of xenophobia and nativism.
Perhaps more significantly, this current political crisis presents a clear challenge to the secular state as the basis of Indonesia’s political system, rejecting the rule of law as conceived by the liberal-democratic tradition. While major political tensions have usually been resolved through constitutional mechanisms, those currently protesting in Jakarta seem to outright reject the validity of a pluralistic constitutional democracy in favour of Islamic precepts. As one commentator puts it, “religious identity threatens to displace citizenship as a key organising principle”.
Complicating this picture are accusations of undue political interference from below. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for instance, is accused of organising, funding and even inciting the rallies; what could be a poorly disguised campaign tool designed to disrupt Ahok’s popularity vis-à-vis his son Agus Yukhoyono, chief competitor against Ahok in the upcoming election. Furthermore, several prominent figures, including daughter of former President Sukarno and sister of former President Megawati, Rachamwati Soekarnoputri, were arrested on treason charges preceding the most recent rally.
The role and influence of these establishment figures could suggest that underlying religious sentiments are being hijacked for political gain. Here Islam is simply a tool for vested interests. This adds a somewhat insidious undercurrent to this already murky political drama. It also confuses the reasons for popular dissent, conflating the defence of Islam with racial prejudice, legitimate grievances over Ahok’s policies and attempts to gain political influence. Either way, this is a significant juncture for Indonesia’s political identity.
This is hardly unique, however. In fact, active and violent demonstrations appear to be a reoccurring theme in the history of modern Indonesia, where Suharto’s New Order Regime was bookended by the mass killings of 1965-66 and the riots of 1988. In a way, these demonstrations seem to be violent outbursts of a process by which a deeply pluralistic nation comes to terms with its own political realities and newfound democratic status.
As Indonesians navigate both the rights and responsibilities of democratic participation, these periods of tension seem to have become semi-regular parts of adjusting to and, in turn, shaping political and social structures that do not easily fit this diverse and multifarious island nation. Nonetheless, these riots are a powerful sign of both the potential and limits of citizen participation. They remind us that the darker underbelly of Indonesian society, only partially mitigated with the Reformasi, can erupt in ferocious fractures, and that this young democracy still has a lot of modifications to make.
Mason Littlejohn is a Research Assistant in the Law Enforcement and Public Health Program at the University of Melbourne.