Indonesian courts have commenced the trial of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, facing charges of blasphemy for having joked about a paragraph in the Quran that implies Muslims should not be governed by non-Muslims.
Ahok is an ethnic Chinese Christian. A video of him delivering the joke triggered a violent mob of 150,000 Indonesian Muslims to take the streets in November, demanding he be killed.
Prior to the trial, Ahok, who is currently campaigning for reelection, apologized on multiple occasions. In court, he cried, insisting that he had no intention of insulting Islam and that, having been raised by Muslim adoptive parents, he respected the religion. “I did not intend to misinterpret Surah Al Maidah 51 [the Quranic verse in question] nor commit blasphemy nor insult ulemas [Islamic scholars],” Ahok told the jury. He explained that his joke was meant to target Muslim politicians who use Surah Al Maidah 51 to convince low-information voters to vote against better candidates who happen to not be Muslim.
The governor appeared to refer to Surah Al Maidah 5:51, which reads, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”
“I referred to certain politicians who had misused Surah Al Maidah 51 to avoid fair competition prior to upcoming regional elections,” Ahok argued. “When I asked my [Muslim] friends, they told me that the verse was given when there were Muslims who wanted to kill Prophet Muhammad by conspiring with Christians and Jews.”
“My father and my adoptive father, vowed to be brothers until the end. The love of my adoptive parents for me, has inspired me to this day,” he added amid tears, noting that his adoptive father was Muslim.
The Jakarta Post reports that Ahok may lose his position as governor regardless of the trial outcome, at least temporarily. “If the court procures a letter explaining the charges and maximum sentence that might be given to Ahok, the Home Affairs Ministry could temporarily dismiss him,” according to a Home Affairs Ministry official.
Ahok was charged as a “suspect” in the blasphemy case following the aforementioned mob riot demanding his death, in which one person died. He is charged with violating an Indonesian statute that prohibits “religious abuse and/or defamation,” which carries a maximum sentence of five years.
Despite the mob protests, Ahok remains extremely popular among Indonesian Christians and anti-Islamists generally. “I will keep supporting Pak Ahok who has been mistreated in this case. This is a character assassination committed by people who have ulterior motives,” one supporter told the Jakarta Post at an assembly of hundreds of supporters at his campaign headquarters Thursday. Another supporter, who identified herself as Muslim, insisted she did not “feel offended by Ahok’s speech” and accused his opponents of exploiting religion to sink his campaign.
The Post also notes that a prominent women’s rights group organized in front of Ahok’s campaign headquarters to support Ahok. “We are ready to help the pair to disseminate their programs until they are elected,” activist Saparinah Sadli said.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Its politicians have used the blasphemy law with increasing frequency in recent memory, particularly to target anti-Islamic or Westernized liberal media. In 2014, the Jakarta Post itself was charged with blasphemy for publishing an anti-Islamic State political cartoon. This year, Indonesia’s broadcasting board attempted to censor Netflix due to anti-Islamic material available on the service and have attempted to push through a ban on “offensive internet memes.”