Christian on Trial for Blasphemy Wins First Round of Jakarta Gubernatorial Election

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - FEBRUARY 15: Basuki Tjahaja Purnama greets voters during his arrival on February 15, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Residents of Indonesia's capital went to the polls on Wednesday to vote for its new governor during an election marked by mass demonstrations against the incumbent governor Basuki Purnama Tjahaja, …
Oscar Siagian/Getty Images

Jakarta governor Basuki (Ahok) Tjahaja Purnama has won the first round of gubernatorial elections, the first step in securing re-election before a run-off vote in April. Ahok’s achievement is particularly notable given the governor is currently on trial for blasphemy, for allegedly insulting the Quran in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Ahok won the election, according to the Malaysia Star, with 42 percent of the vote. To prevent a run-off vote, he would have had to secure 50 percent of the vote. As the election stands at press time, his rival in the run-off vote will be former education and culture minister Anies Baswedan, who won 39 percent of the vote. The Star notes that, in the first round of voting, Ahok benefitted from a split Muslim vote but will now contend with Muslims uniting largely in Anies’s favor.

Before election officials announced that Ahok had won the first round of elections, the governor told reporters he felt “grateful” but refused to take the victory for granted: “the fight is not over just yet.”

“Several months ago, some survey organizations predicted that we would lose, and that we wouldn’t even garner 20 percent of the votes. But the facts now clearly say otherwise,” Ahok said. “So far, we lead the competition. So, I thank all my supporters, volunteers and political parties [that backed Ahok] very much. I’m sure we will stay solid.”

Ahok took over for current Indonesian president Joko Widodo as Jakarta governor following his election and has received acclaim for his work in combatting pollution, investing in new public park spaces, and helping improve the state’s traffic congestion. Al Jazeera notes that he once held a 70 percent approval rating. That quickly changed when fundamentalist Muslims accused Ahok, a Christian member of the nation’s ethnic Chinese minority, of blasphemy.

During a campaign stop, Ahok referred to the Quran’s Surah Al Maidah 5:51, which some Islamic scholars interpret as a prohibition on non-Muslims governing Muslim territories. While initially reported as a joke, Ahok later told prosecutors he was not indicting the Quran itself, but Muslim scholars who abuse the Quran for political ends, when he told the crowd they should disregard this Surah. After protests in which crowds 100,000-strong demanded Ahok be put to trial and, in some cases, death, an Indonesian court named him a “suspect” in a blasphemy case.

“I call on all supporters to accept me being named a suspect. I believe the police are being professional,” he said at the time. “I hope the trial will be open to the public and TV reporters will broadcast it.”

Amid campaigning for Jakarta’s governorship, Ahok was forced to appear before a court and apologize for the comment. “I did not intend to misinterpret Surah Al Maidah 51 [the Quranic verse in question] nor commit blasphemy nor insult ulemas [Islamic scholars],” he said, amid tears. 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.”

Ahok added that his adoptive father is a Muslim who taught him to be tolerant. The court chose to formally prosecute Ahok following his testimony, as protesters chanting “Allahu Akbar” celebrated the result outside the courthouse.

On the Saturday before the election, another Muslim mob of over 100,000 chanted, “kill Ahok” and demand his death, waving Palestinian flags before one of Jakarta’s largest mosques. Muslims organized a protest once again on Tuesday to protest St. Valentine’s Day, with law enforcement officials conducting raids on stores selling condoms to prevent them from selling the contraceptives to non-married couples.

Experts fear that, should Ahok lose this election, his case will set a precedent for stoking anti-Christian hatred to amass political power. “If Ahok (were) to lose, other than politicians using religion as a tool, Islamists will use it to change Islam into Indonesia to their own meaning, that isn’t Indonesian,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Tobias Basuki told CNN.

The Muslims in his campaign, meanwhile, continue to rebuke the use of the remarks for political gain. “There is nothing wrong with what Ahok said. But they edited the video, and the pressure groups became bigger and bigger. Now they don’t accept a non-Muslim to be governor,” Bambang Wclaluyo Wahab, Ahok’s deputy campaign manager, told reporters, noting that he was Muslim, “and I studied the Quran.”


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