15:27, May 09 222 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-09 15:27:02
The Guardian view on blasphemy in Indonesia: exploiting religion for political purposes

The jailing of Jakarta’s Christian governor for two years for blasphemy is a shocking and harsh ruling in a case that should never have been brought. It goes further than even prosecutors had sought; they had asked for a suspended one-year sentence for Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – better known as Ahok – on a lesser charge. He had cited a verse from the Qur’an which he said was misused to deceive voters into believing non-Muslims should not lead Muslims. His lawyer says he will appeal.

Indonesia is not only a relatively recent democracy, but the world’s third largest; it also has the largest Muslim population. It has been welcomed as proof that Islam and democracy are compatible; and – though deeply scarred by periodic outbreaks of communal and inter-ethnic violence of various kinds – it likes to pride itself on moderation, pluralism and tolerance.

The trial has raised grave concern at home and abroad. Acquittals are vanishingly rare in Indonesian blasphemy cases. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights has urged a review of the law and Amnesty International called for its immediate repeal. Today’s decision reinforces the need to scrap it. If a man as powerful as Ahok – a close ally of the president – is treated so harshly on such a flimsy pretext, what are the prospects for others? His supporters say this is “mob justice”: they believe the court bowed to pressure from hardline Islamist groups who whipped up enormous protests against him with virulent rhetoric and distorted quotes.

As president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, noted, that does not mean the case should be seized upon as proof of a broad swing towards more conservative forms of Islam. What it does show is that hardliners are increasingly manipulating religion for political purposes – with disturbing success. They fomented the row to sink Ahok’s campaign for reelection to the post he inherited from Jokowi. He is widely regarded as an unusually clean and competent politician – enjoying 70% approval ratings before the blasphemy accusations – but is also an abrasive, outspoken one. And he is ethnically Chinese in a country with a long history of anti-Chinese sentiment.

And it is as much about other politicians as it is about Ahok. Jokowi has been conspicuously absent throughout and anxious not to comment, understanding how politically toxic it could be, and how he could be dragged in overtly or covertly. He even agreed to appear at one of the rallies and pray with hardline leaders last year. As a political outsider – the first president elected from outside the oligarchical elite – he has had to work particularly hard to balance constituencies and priorities. But he should feel chastened as he considers Ahok’s defeat at the polls and tough sentence. Others too have played a part. Anies Baswedan, who defeated Ahok in the gubernatorial race last month, had previously been seen as a moderate, tolerant figure – but appeared alongside the preacher leading the charge as he courted votes.

The dangers of populism are abundantly obvious around the world at the moment. Indonesia’s politicians should take note as they consider the court’s ruling. Ignoring the shrillest voices, or worse still pandering to them, is destructive, irresponsible and ultimately self-defeating. Taking them on can be costly. But the mainstream will ultimately pay a far higher price if it fails to do so.