The Granite Tower
Ahok—a Heathen or a Victim?
Lim Hyon Yoo  |
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승인 2017.04.05  00:49:46
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▲ Rally against Governor Ahok. Provided by the Jakarta Post.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the ethnically Chinese governor of Jakarta who is often referred to by his nickname Ahok, has been accused of being a heathen. The banners around Jakarta clearly state how much the people loathe him being their leader. They only want a pure Muslim, not an outsider violating their sanctity. Governor Purnama’s insult of the Quran has infuriated the devout, and his time for judgement has finally come. The second round of the gubernatorial election in Jakarta has started, holding the fate of Governor Purnama in its hands.

As expected, the first round of the gubernatorial election, held on February 15, failed to find a clear ruling majority. The approval ratings for Ahok sharply crashed after he criticized his Muslim opponents for abusing the words of the Quran, which forbids non-Muslim leadership. This was seen as an act of sacrilege by believers, leading to Ahok’s advocates withdrawing their support and lowering his odds of re-election.

There are so many variables, considering Indonesia’s peculiar election system. Unlike the way it is carried out in South Korea, Jakarta employs a tworound system. If the first round does not produce a majority, the two leading candidates are invited to another round where the eventual winner is chosen. Thus, due to a lack of support, Ahok must prepare for a second election in April.

Originally, there were three candidates competing for the post. Ahok, the current governor and the center of this scandal, won the first election with 43 percent of the vote. Indonesia’s former Minister of Education, Anies Baswedan, won the second ticket to the next round with 40 percent. Former President Bambang Yudhoyono’s son and military officer Agus Yudhoyono was eliminated from the race after gaining only 17 percent. What those voters who supported Agus now choose to do holds the key to the next round of the election.

This gubernatorial post has gained so much—maybe too much— attention because the governor of Jakarta is implicitly assumed to be a potential presidential candidate. Starting with Ahok’s predecessor and political companion Joko Widodo, the former governor of Jakarta and current president of Indonesia, it has become a custom that the leader of the capital city one day take over the presidency. All eyes are focused on who is going to lead this huge country, population 250 million.


▲ Agus Yudhoyono. Provided by gozzip
▲ Governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama. Provided by Wikiwand


▲ Anies Baswedan. Provided by Indonesiana

What Happened Exactly?

The ordeal of the beloved governor happened in an instant. A simple sentence was all that was needed to start this scandal. On September 27, 2016, Ahok visited Pulau Seribu, a small town near Jakarta, for a public speech. During the speech, as a means to criticize his competitors’ attempts to denigrate him, Ahok accused them of abusing the holy words of the Quran. His exact words were, “If you have been fooled by the ones maladapting the 51st verse of the fifth chapter of the Quran that states, ‘Christian or Jewish leaders are forbidden,’ you do not have to vote for me.”

This brief sentence, behind which was no intent to commit blasphemy, shook the whole country. Fabricated video footage that made it sound as if Ahok attacked the specific verse of the Quran, went viral on YouTube. Reactions were immediate. Muslims in Jakarta demanded severe punishment for the insult, and a huge protest broke out in the center of the city. The gigantic size of one of the protests led to the name “The Great Protest of November 4.” However, it did not end there. Some Muslim organizations like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) filed an actual police report, accusing him of profanity. Ahok not only had to attend court, but was also indicted without detention.

Of course, the governor sincerely apologized for the misleading remark. On October 10, 2016, Ahok expressed his regret and officially took the blame for his use of words. Still, the reactions showed no signs of calming down. The day after his apology, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the highest clerical body in the country, announced their stance on the matter. They criticized Ahok’s attempt to insult the Quran, and ruled his words to be sacrilege.

After the MUI’s announcement, the Muslim riots turned even more violent, with banners calling for capital punishment even seen around the city. Fortunately, not everyone turned their back on Ahok. Voices of advocacy rose above the violence of the riots, and many expressed concern about the country becoming intolerant and exclusive. Like their opposition, concer ned citizens g athered on December 4, 2016 and demonstrated Indonesia’s virtues of tolerance and harmony.

The Man Behind the Scandal—Who is He?

To truly understand this scandal, it is crucial to know about Ahok himself andthe religious and historic background of Indonesia. The controversy is a complex and difficult situation, though it may seem on the surface to simply be an overreaction to Ahok’s poor choice of words. Indeed, the fact that the governor is a member of two minority groups is a vital ingredient of this case.

Living in Indonesia with a Chinese background meant that Ahok was an easy target for hatred. The history between the two countries made it impossible for him to escape prejudice. During the Dutch colonial period, the Dutch hired Chinese supervisors to control the Indonesian workers and improve efficiency. Decades later, it was the Chinese who stood beside the dictator Haji Mohammad Soeharto when the Indonesians were deprived of their freedom.

His faith also alienates him further from society. Ahok is a Christian, a religion which is only practiced by 6 percent of the Indonesian population, whereas 87 percent are Muslim. It was this religious difference that caused dissent when he first came to power in Jakarta and which triggered the recent scandal.

Despite the obstacles provided by his minority status, Ahok’s political career has been up to now quite brilliant. He was an immediate success as a regent in his hometown of Belitung and later was elected to parliament. Afterwards, he became the running mate for Joko Widodo when he ran for governor of Jakarta; following Jokowi’s election win, Ahok became the deputy governor. He built a firm partnership with Jokowi that allowed him to take over as governor when Jokowi left to be president.

The progressive policies that Ahok has pursued in his career have been the key to his success. He was beloved by his people because of his consistent anticorruption stance and his achievement in building social infrastructure. Stabilizing the educational, medical, and public-transport systems resulted in a financial boom, which is still appreciated by many. It is why he was able to earn 43 percent of the vote in the first round of the election, despite being accused of profanity.


▲ Rally of tolerance and harmony in the center of Jakarta. Provided by Aju News.

Behind the Scenes— Interpreting the Case

Even considering Ahok’s complex background, the reactions against the case was too unusually intense to be fully explained by these reasons. This was why the former president of the Islamic National University claimed, “This protest is soundly political.” The case is suspected to have political motivations that have carefully manipulated the scandal behind the scenes.

Experts focus on Ahok’s relationship with President Jokowi. As outlined above, Ahok was Jokowi’s running mate and supported him as deputy governor. Most of his political life has been greatly influenced by the president. Thus, it is safe to say that any attack on Ahok can be interpreted as an attack on the current president.

Indeed, the progressive nature of Ahok and Jokowi seems to have created a number of enemies. With their anti-corruption policies and attempts to weaken religious intervention in politics, they have become the target of hatred among conservative groups. This scandal too is thought to have been spurred on by the older generation, which is trying to prevent the rise of the new generation, represented by Jokowi. The Intelligence Bureau of Indonesia has already released proof that Agus Yudhoyono, representing conservative military power, encouraged anti-Ahok protests by manipulating Muslim organizations.

The fact that the presidential election is coming up quite soon also increases the suspicion. Because the gubernatorial post in Jakarta is considered to be a pathway to the presidency, it is easily understandable why Ahok’s desire to be reelected is meeting stiff resistance. The oldergeneration’s concern that Jokowi will hold onto the presidency seems to be the motive behind their dissent. According to Yonhap News, that is why they are giving full support to Anies Baswedan, who is also a strong candidate for the next presidential election. By helping him win the gubernatorial post, they are trying to eventually hand Baswedan the country’s leadership at the expense of Jokowi.

So, is He a Victim?

In summary, most experts and reports view this incident as a complex mix of religious strife, resentment of an ethnic minority, and conservative versus progressive rivalry. They tend to focus on how Ahok is the victim of the situation, rather than a heathen. However, Professor Shin Jae Hyeok (Department of Political Science and International Relations) has a different view on the matter. Professor Shin is concerned that the press might be slightly exaggerating the disadvantages Ahok has faced.

First, the belief that the Muslims of Indonesia are oppressing Christians seems to be a misunderstanding, according to Professor Shin. Unlike Muslims in the Middle East, Muslims in South-East Asia are known to be much more moderate in their beliefs. They do not desire a theocratic society but actually support the separation of religion and politics. This can be easily proven by the higher approval rates for secular parties compared to Islamic parties.

Ahok’s situation, in which religious organizations have actively participated on every level of the case, is a peculiar one. Professor Shin admits that it was certainly unusual of them to try to be involved in politics, but doubts that it has made any difference. “Frankly,” he says, “it is highly unlikely for the people of Indonesia to have treated him differently because of his faith. They are normally displeased with religious organizations trying to intervene in politics.” In his view, Ahok’s scandal was more the result of his crossing the line with his unnecessary remarks about the Quran than it is about discrimination against Christians.

Also, the criticism of the press accusing Indonesians of expressing their hatred of the Chinese in political cases like this seems to be an exaggeration. Professor Shin believes that this hatred, which did exist in the past, has subsided nowadays. Like his faith, Ahok’s ethnic background simply had nothing to do with the rage of the people of Jakarta. “If they truly hated the Chinese, why would have they elected him as their governor in the first place?” asked Shin.

Finally, painting the conflict as a struggle between conservatives and progressives is yet another mistake. According to Professor Shin, the political differences between Jokowi and Bambang Yudhoyono are not hugely different. Unlike Korea, it is difficult to clearly delineate them as either conservative or progressive. The only difference between them is that Bambang offered a significant sum of money to parliament to fund the generous policies needed to gain the approval of the people, whereas Jokowi did not.

Hence, the accusation that Ahok committed sacrilege might not be as unjust as it is illustrated in the media. However, even Professor Shin cannot deny the slight conservative shift Indonesia is facing. “I hope it is not true, but there are surely some signs of a conservative swing happening in Indonesia,” worries Shin. Like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand, which are currently going through a democratic crisis, Ahok’s scandal might be the mere starting point for Indonesia’s isolationism, a trend that the whole continent is experiencing. Thus, careful observation and analysis of the outcome of this case is needed.  

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