Indonesia charges Christian governor with blasphemy; what's at stake

Indonesia charges Christian governor with blasphemy; what’s at stake

Opinion

On 2 December, a vast number of Muslims crowded into Jakarta’s central park, Medan Merdeka, and surrounding suburbs for what organisers called “Defending Islam Action III” (Aksi Bela Islam III). This was the third and largest mass event since early October to demand action against Jakarta’s Christian Chinese governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for alleged blasphemy against Islam.

As with previous “actions”, this event combined speeches to the crowd with Friday prayers and chants in praise of God. The previous rally, on 4 November, had attracted an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 people. Last Friday’s rally was at least twice that size, with considered estimates ranging from 500,000 to 750,000, making it probably the largest single religious gathering in Indonesian history. Drone photos graphically captured the size of the crowd, with streets and parkland jammed with people sitting on prayer mats amid falling rain. Large numbers came from outside Jakarta, including many from outside Java. Unlike the 4 November rally, which ended in violent clashes between police and demonstrators, the 2 December event concluded peacefully in the early afternoon, as scheduled.

How are we to explain the sheer magnitude of this event, and what is its political and religious significance? At one level, the rally was a triumph for the hard-line Islamists who led it and appeared to offer further evidence of deepening conservatism in Indonesian Islam. The rally was organised by the National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI), a coalition of Islamist groups. Their primary aim was to force the government and law enforcement authorities to prosecute and jail Ahok based on a Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) fatwa. The fatwa declared him to be a blasphemer for references he made to the Qur’an in a 27 September speech.

But the movement had other agendas, such as changing the Constitution to oblige Muslims to follow Islamic law, proposing bans on non-Muslim leaders in majority Muslim communities, greater implementation of sharia provisions, and the nomination of political candidates for executive office who are sympathetic to Islamist objectives. In other words, removing Ahok was just one part of a much broader Islamisation endeavour. GNPF-MUI leaders probably never imagined when they began organising in October that they could have drawn such massive crowds.

But how much of GNPF-MUI’s agenda did the crowd support? Undoubtedly, most of those who attended believed Ahok had insulted Islam and wanted him out of public life. To that extent, they backed the movement’s immediate agenda. Can we assume, however, that many in the crowd knew of and supported its wider Islamist agenda? And does the massive turnout really portend a hardening of mainstream Muslim attitudes, as a number of commentators have declared?

This article continues at [University of Melbourne] Bigger than Ahok: explaining the 2 December mass rally

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