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Islamic hardliners protest Christian mayor in Indonesia

Blasphemy accusations and violence highlight country’s struggle against radicalization

Protesters use sticks to attack riot police during a clash outside the presidential palace in Jakarta. Associated Press/Photo by Tatan Syuflana

Islamic hardliners protest Christian mayor in Indonesia

In an unusually large protest, tens of thousands of hardline Muslims marched in Indonesia’s capital Friday against the Christian governor of Jakarta because of remarks he made about the Quran.

Protesters demanded Gov. Basuki Tjahja Purnama, often referred to by his nickname, Ahok, resign from office and be jailed for blasphemy.

“He is not Muslim but he humiliated the Quran,” protester Muhammad Said told Reuters. “Don’t refer to anything in the Quran, especially interpreting it incorrectly. … I call on God to jail him.”

Led by the Islamic Defenders Front, the anti-Ahok protests escalated into violence, causing at least one death and injuring 200 people. Following Friday prayers, a crowd of between 100,000 and 150,000 began to gather. Some demonstrators started throwing rocks at police and setting vehicles on fire before officers dispersed the crowd.

Five years in prison is the maximum punishment for blasphemy in Indonesia, but a banner hanging from an overpass read “Hang Ahok here.” The Jakarta Post also reported some protesters called for the governor’s death.

Ahok, an ally of Muslim President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, is the first ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta. He’s running for reelection against two Muslims. As a Chinese Christian, he is an ethnic and religious minority in the majority-Muslim nation. In a national address after the protest, Widodo blamed the violence on “political actors.”

Last month, some critics cited Quranic verses to claim non-Muslims like him should not rule over Muslims. The Jakarta Post reported Ahok urged people not to be “deceived” by those attacks, provoking outrage and allegations of blasphemy. He later apologized.

Police promised to question the governor and investigate thoroughly. Widodo promised the investigation, now underway, would proceed “swiftly, firmly, and transparently.”

Despite his minority status, Ahok is a popular governor.

The country’s constitution, which recognizes six official religions, allows people to choose their faith and worship according to their beliefs. But it is illegal to insult or defame a religion, according to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2015. Sharia law is practiced in Aceh province, as part of a 2005 agreement ending a separatist conflict.

Prosecutions for blasphemy have increased in the past decade, with 106 convictions between 2004 and 2014, according to Amnesty International.

Persecution against Christians is minimal but usually stems from Islamic extremism. In Aceh province, Muslim militants have attacked and burned churches, causing Christians to flee to neighboring provinces, according to The Gatestone Institute.

Local governments occasionally close houses of worship or restrict minority religious groups’ rights because of Islamist complaints. Officials in West Java shuttered 29 churches because of pressure from the Islamic Defenders Front, according to CBN News.

Indonesia has been known for religious tolerance and moderate Islam but is struggling against increased radicalization. In January, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in Jakarta. Years earlier, Indonesian Islamic extremist groups attacked several churches on Christmas Eve and orchestrated deadly nightclub bombings in Bali.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia is a correspondent for WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and worked in communications in the Washington, D.C., area from 2005 to 2019. Julia resides in Denver, Colo.



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