Police on Wednesday named the Christian governor of the Indonesian capital Jakarta as a suspect in a blasphemy investigation in a major test of the Muslim-majority nation’s reputation for religious tolerance.
Earlier this month, Jakarta was rocked by a massive protest by conservative Muslims against the governor. One person died and dozens were injured in rioting. Hardliners have threatened more protests if Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama isn’t arrested.
Police announced at a news conference that the popular governor cannot leave the country while the investigation is underway.
However, they said he is not being detained because investigators and religious experts were sharply divided over whether the comments at issue were blasphemous.
“After long discussions, we reached a decision that the case should be tried in an open court,” said National Police chief detective Ari Dono.
The accusation of blasphemy against Ahok, an ethnic Chinese and Christian who is an ally of President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, has galvanized Jokowi’s political opponents in the nation of 250 million where about 90 per cent of people are Muslims, but five other religions are also recognised by the state.
Jokowi cancelled an official visit to Australia because of the rioting and has spent the past two weeks rallying the political, religious and security establishments behind him.
It has also been a gift to political rivals of Ahok, who is seeking a second term as Jakarta governor in elections in February. Among them is the son of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former president. Yudhoyono courted controversy by calling for Ahok’s arrest and saying he supported the November 4 protest.
The Islamic Defenders Front, a vigilante group that wants to impose Shariah law, began demanding Ahok’s arrest after a video circulated online in which he joked to an audience about a passage in the Koran that could be interpreted as prohibiting Muslims from accepting non-Muslims as leaders. The governor has apologised for the comment.
Munarman, a spokesman for the Front who goes by one name, said the group is still demanding Ahok’s arrest because he could flee or destroy evidence. “The offence has caused unrest across the country,” he said. “We will continue to stage protests until he is arrested.”
National Police chief Tito Karnavian said that barring Ahok from leaving the country is the appropriate “maximum” step to take at present.
“If there are pressures for his arrest, we need to question if that is because of other motivations,” he said. “Once again, there should be no parties who pressure for his arrest. Let’s think rationally and logically.”
Sumarno, chief of Jakarta’s Election Commission, said Ahok is not barred from competing in the gubernatorial election.
Ahok is first Christian governor of Jakarta in half a century and the first ethnic Chinese to run the sprawling chaotic city that is one of the world’s 10 largest urban areas.
He is popular with the city’s middle class, but has made enemies from a tough stance against corruption and an urban programme that has evicted thousands of the city’s poorest from slums.
Ahok thanked police for dealing with the case in a professional manner.
“We still have chance to take part in the election, therefore, for our supporters, please come to polling stations and cast ballots for our victory in the first round,” he told reporters at his campaign centre. “That is what we hope to show, a good democratic process for our nation.”
The anti-Ahok movement, which has attracted moderates as well as hardline elements as the city election approached, has also overflowed with slurs based on race.
The vulnerability of Indonesia’s tiny Chinese minority remains a raw issue in the country. In the chaos that engulfed Indonesia in May 1998 amid the Asian financial crisis, mobs in Jakarta and other cities targeted Chinese businesses and individuals, killing many.
Blasphemy is a criminal offence in Indonesia. Amnesty International documented 106 convictions between 2004 and 2014 with some individuals imprisoned for up to five years.