Governor of Jakarta charged for blasphemy

Australian expert on Islam explains the Indonesian controversy

The Christian Governor of Jakarta will face court over charges of blasphemy, after allegedly insulting the Koran earlier this month. Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok as he is widely known, is familiar with Islam, having grown up in a Muslim-majority region of Indonesia and attended Islamic schools.

If found guilty, he could face up to five years’ jail time.

The ethnically Chinese Governor is popular among moderate Muslims, but some of his decisions have earned him some enemies, particularly among hard-line Muslims from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The FPI declared that no Muslim should vote for him based on the Qur’anic verse Q.5:51. In response to the allegations, Ahok said that his opponents had deceived voters by attacking him using a verse from the Koran.

The ABC reports that Ahok apologised for his remarks, insisting he was not criticising the Koranic verse but those who used it to attack him.

“We must all respect the legal process for the good of the nation.” – Governor Ahok

Earlier this month, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Jakarta to demand Ahok be arrested, but the largely peaceful protest turned violent as hard-line Muslims began attacking police and media crews and setting cars on fire. One person died and more than one hundred were injured.

Since Ahok was named as a suspect, The Australian has reported him as saying, “police have worked professionally in naming me a suspect. We  must appreciate the legal process because this is not about my case. We must all respect the legal process for the good of the nation. I will continue my work. I will campaign for the election.”

If found guilty, he could face up to five years’ jail time.

Bernie Power, a lecturer with the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology, says, “The situation may have arisen due to editing of his speech and posting on YouTube by his enemies. Ahok has said that the literalists were lied to about the verse (5:51) but a mistranslation might have made his statement that ‘the verse has lied to you’.”

Surah 5:51 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.”

Some Muslims believe the verse implies that Muslims must not choose non-Muslims as leaders.

Power says that Muslims interpret verses such as this in at least three different ways.

First, literalists – mostly fundamentalists – generally take the classical view that the verses must be put into practice as they are.

“So [this would mean] no Muslim should ever have a non-Muslim friend or colleague, or live under a non-Muslim ruler. They should always migrate to an area which under Islamic rule, and mix only with Muslims. (Hence the attraction of ISIS),” says Power.

Second, contextualisers would say that these verses need to be understood contextually.

The contextualists see these verses as being “given at a time when the Muslim community was under threat and should be applied in that situation. However, when Muslims have freedom to worship and establish Islamic schools and run for parliament, these verses do not apply … So for them there is no problem mixing with Christians and living under non-Muslim rule as long as the Muslims are not being persecuted. If they are persecuted, then the literalist view applies,” says Power.

Third, modernists would take a more liberal view.

“They would say that these verses applied in Muhammad’s day when the early Muslim community was trying to establish itself,” says Power, “but they no longer apply as Islam is well-established as a universal and cosmopolitan religion. Now it is the spiritual aspects of Islam that have precedence.”

Ahok is the frontrunner in the gubernatorial elections, due to be held on February 15 next year.

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