By Eka Kurniawan
May 2, 2017
“Look, Sir,” the taxi driver said to me, pointing at a newly built five-story building. “That’s a community health centre. At one point it had practically collapsed, and now it’s five floors high!”
“I’m a Muslim, Sir,” he added. “I can see that Jakarta is finally being developed properly. I’ve been in the streets every day for 15 years, and only now can I say that things are working as they should.”
Damn, I thought. It was three days before the second round of the gubernatorial election in Jakarta last month, an epic drama about race and prejudice that has divided people throughout Indonesia — at the presidential palace, in mosques, across social media and in many homes.
The driver said he was a supporter of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, Jakarta’s incumbent governor. Ahok had promoted more transparent budgets, bureaucratic reform and better urban infrastructure. Ahok is also Christian and ethnic Chinese, and it’s important to say this, because that’s largely the reason that a few days after that taxi ride he lost his post to Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education and culture.
Ethnic Chinese make up a little more than 1 percent of Indonesia’s population. They have suffered from prejudice since colonial times, as well as occasional bouts of mass violence, partly a result of anti-Communism. But Muslim radicalism has gained traction in mainstream politics in recent years, and threatened the Chinese minority in new ways — as well as this Muslim-majority country’s long tradition of religious tolerance.
“Don’t talk about Ahok in front of the family,” my mother-in-law had told me during a visit to Jakarta in February. She reminded me that her nieces and nephews were participating then in a wave of demonstrations that came to be known as the “Defend Islam” rallies.
The protests were set off by a speech Ahok gave in late September criticizing political rivals for quoting the Quran in order to sway Muslim constituents against him. Ahok said the people were being “deceived with Sura Al-Maidah 51,” a Quranic verse that the government’s department of religion has translated into Bahasa Indonesia as prohibiting Muslims from selecting Christians or Jews as leaders or allies.
For that, the Indonesia Ulema Council issued a fatwa saying that Ahok had insulted the Quran. The Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or F.P.I., in Bahasa), a hard-line radical Islamist organization, took him to court for blasphemy, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. Led by F.P.I., supporters of Ahok’s rivals waged the demonstrations.
Blasphemy cases are nothing new in Indonesia. Artists and critics have been prosecuted for writing a short story about the Prophet Muhammad descending to earth or publishing a popularity contest ranking him 11th, among other things. But the Ahok case is newly worrying because in the wake of the Defend Islam demonstrations, radical Islamic groups have spoken in favour of establishing Islamic law throughout Indonesia. Shariah currently is practiced only in the north-western province of Aceh.
The Defend Islam protests were staged on catchy, symbolic dates. The first one took place on Nov. 4, 2016, and was called “411 Rally”: “411” looks like the word “Allah” in Arabic script. The second protest, held on Dec. 2, 2016, became the “212” rally, a reference to a popular martial arts novel.
The demonstrations resonated widely. For example, the artist Ardian Syaf secretly slipped into two panels of his new “X-Man Gold #1” comic book signs of his support for the Defend Islam Rallies. In one, he drew “212” on a building; in another, “QS 5:51,” referring to Al-Maidah 51, appears on the uniform of a baseball player.
Previously, F.P.I. was best known for carrying out vigilante attacks at sites it considers immoral, like bars or clubs. Now, it has brought Islamic law into mainstream politics. In the recent Jakarta election, the group openly supported the candidacy of Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, better known as AHY, with the slogan, “Don’t elect a non-Muslim leader.”
Despite that backing, AHY — an army major and the son of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s sixth president — fell short during the first round in February, winning only 17 percent of votes. (Ahok got 43 percent and Anies about 39 percent.) After his loss, supporters of the Defend Islam movement switched their support to Anies.
Although Anies won the second round, and the governorship, the F.P.I.’s job hardly is finished. Its target no longer is Ahok, but the electorate at large. And its ultimate objective is the 2019 presidential election.
“Our neighbours keep on trying to get us to join the Defend Islam rallies,” my younger sister complained to me recently. “They say that, as Muslims, we have a duty to respond.” She and I live in the same housing complex on the outskirts of Jakarta. Our neighbourhood has a WhatsApp group forum, originally set up to discuss community issues like safety or road repairs. I don’t check the messages, but she does, and she says they promote an Islamic political agenda.
Intimidating slogans seem to be popping up everywhere around us. A number of mosques throughout Jakarta have hung banners proclaiming, “This mosque doesn’t pray for dead supporters of blasphemers;” they refer, of course, to Ahok’s backers. Some Friday sermons now exhort, “Muslims choose Muslim leaders,” even though the law prohibits the use of mosques for political campaigning.
The reaction to that proselytizing is no less excessive: Banners have also appeared warning that Jakarta will soon implement Shariah law.
It’s tempting, and perhaps reassuring, to cast the Jakarta election as a standard contest for power among political elites. After all, the dynamics of that gubernatorial contest familiar patterns in national politics.
SBY backed his son AHY. President Joko Widodo and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the main party in Parliament, supported Ahok. Prabowo Subianto, who lost the presidential election to Joko in 2014, endorsed Anies. And so Anies’s ultimate victory over Ahok last month looks like a rebuttal to both Prabowo’s loss to Joko and Joko’s decision to remove Anies from his position as minister of education and culture last year.
In fact, the Jakarta election stands for something much more ominous. More gubernatorial and local elections are planned throughout the country next year, and a presidential election is scheduled for 2019. Indonesian politicians like AHY and Anies have played with fire by sharing the political stage with religious groups: Because of them, radical Islamic groups are the new kingmakers of Indonesian politics.
Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian novelist who lives in Jakarta, is the author of “Beauty is a Wound” and “Man Tiger.”