The former Christian governor of Jakarta, Indonesia, was sentenced this week to two years in an Indonesian prison for allegedly blaspheming the Koran, but contrary to some reports he did not run foul of Sharia (Islamic) law. Rather, he was convicted under an Indonesian law that was intended to prevent any of the official religions in that country from saying anything nasty about other religions Richard Shumack, head of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology told Eternity.

The jailing is “sad and disappointing because it is a sign that the justice system is being influenced by political pressures from hard line Islamists,” says Schumack.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok as he is more commonly known, was governor of Jakarta from November 2014 to May 2017. He was charged with blasphemy in February this year.

Shumack believes the Ahok case is part of a larger trend where hardliners are attempting to pressure the government and society to become more Islamic. In terms of court cases, Shumack says, “This is an isolated incident. There are very particular features in Ahok’s case. But right-wing Islamists are trying to get as much mileage as they can out of it.

“Ahok is a really interesting character. He was the Governor of Jakarta. He was quite a polarising figure. He was very effective and had many, many supporters because but he was a bit abrasive and he would say controversial things.

“The vast majority of Muslims in Indonesia were against the judgement.” – Richard Shumack

“He is Christian but he is also Chinese so there were ethnic issues playing out here as well.

“I would not want to say he walked into a trap but he did not do himself any favours because he pushed the boundaries in the way that he spoke about a whole range of things, not just religion.

“He was a complex political character and there is a mix of religion and politics here. This is something that his political opponents could get him on.”

Schumack does not believe that Ahok set out to blaspheme. “Even the prosecutors were arguing it was not intentional. The judges disagreed with the prosecutors at that point. The prosecutors thought it was accidental but that Ahok needed to be taught a lesson by being given a suspended sentence.

“But the judges – and this is the controversial point – because of outside pressure took a harder line than the prosecutors.”

Because they ruled Ahok’s actions were deliberate they imposed a prison sentence.

Schumack was surprised that the sentence was that harsh, from a legal perspective at least. “From a political sense I can see why they are doing it – the numbers of people in the street protesting Ahok’s words – huge numbers of people in the streets the likes of which Indonesia had not seen for many many years. There was a real fear that it could become explosive, and that influenced the judges more than what the prosecutors were saying.

“They weren’t his actual words by the way – the public version on Youtube of what he said was very heavily edited. The full version is a little more ambiguous. You can see how people would have taken it as blasphemous.

“The vast majority of Muslims in Indonesia were against the judgement. The vast majority of Muslims are moderate and would be just as horrified with the judgement. But the numbers of Islamists is growing, slowly, but it is growing.”

The Ahok case is about the “delicate dance,” in Schumack’s words, of Indonesia both being a secular state but one with a majority Muslim population, and a growing Islamist political movement within it.

Shumack points out that Indonesia’s concept of a secular state is different from how many Australians think about a secular state. Atheism is illegal. Indonesians are required to register as a follower of a recognised religion (Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, or Sikhism). The blasphemy law is not a Sharia Law but a law designed to prevent members of these religions disparaging each other.

“The Islamists are taking advantage of that law and turning it into a divisive law which is not what it was intended to be.”

Richard Schumack is head of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology and a fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

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Pray for Governor Ahok who has been sentenced to two years jail. Pray for wisdom for Christian leaders in Indonesia as they respond to this sentencing. Pray for peaceful relations between religions in our northern neighbour.

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