[Postcard] | Prayer and Protest, by Jon Emont | Harper's Magazine

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The breakdown of political norms in Indonesia

On a muggy day in May, more than a hundred people, dressed head-to-toe in black, gathered in front of city hall in Jakarta, calling out slogans and pushing against the metal gate that separated them from its grounds. Four days earlier, Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama—the most powerful non-Muslim politician in Indonesia—had been sentenced to prison for blasphemy, and now his grim-faced supporters had gathered to protest. I slid off the back of a motorbike taxi and made my way toward them. At the edge of the crowd, a group of women in headscarves crouched on the sidewalk talking, and a pair of young men wearing sunglasses unrolled a red-and-black banner that read “Free Ahok.”

It was 92 degrees in the sun, and the crowd was losing patience. They were demanding to enter the governor’s compound to lay wreaths and plaques in Ahok’s honor. On the other side of the gate, a dozen police, some of whom were carrying automatic rifles, observed the demonstrators from under a shaded watch post. (The day before, police had used a water cannon to disperse a pro-Ahok rally outside Jakarta’s High Court.) Just in front of me, towards the center of the crowd, a middle-aged woman was gesticulating to a small group of people who had clustered around her. “If he’d torn open a Koran, or stomped on it, I’d understand,” she said, shaking her head. “But this wasn’t about religion. This was about politics.”

In September 2016, two years into his first term as governor, Ahok gave a speech to fishermen on a small island north of Jakarta, in which he urged them to reject hard-line imams who preach that non-Muslims should not hold political office in Muslim-majority cities. Ahok’s point—which seems to have drawn no objection from the fishermen—was that voters should choose the best candidate, not the one whose religion matched theirs. But fundamentalist leaders recognized the opportunity and denounced his remarks as an attack on the Koran. Backed by Ahok’s political rivals, white-robed Islamists marched through the streets of Jakarta, demanding that the governor be jailed for blasphemy.

Although blasphemy charges are becoming fairly common in Indonesia—more than a hundred people have been convicted over the last decade—Ahok is by far the most powerful person to have ever been targeted under the law. Members of minority groups compare the mental blow of Ahok’s imprisonment with the election of Donald Trump in the United States; his downfall has become a symbol of the country’s endangered pluralism. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and has long been hailed by Western countries for its religious tolerance and commitment to democracy. The past few years, however, have seen a series of highly sectarian election campaigns, state-led efforts to police LGBT people, and the growing political influence of hard-line Muslim organizations, such as the Islamic Defenders Front, which is often compared to the Ku Klux Klan.

At the center of the plaza, where the crowd was thickest, I met Lina Hadi, an elderly Catholic woman with a wild, raspy voice, who was wearing a checkered red scarf that had become Ahok’s campaign symbol. She insisted to me that Ahok was “at peace” in jail. (He is said to spend most of his day reading the Bible in his cell.) Lina’s voice rose like a preacher at the pulpit.

“Ahok has sacrificed himself for the country.” Around her, several people nodded and murmured their agreement. One older man, hunched next to me in the masses, had flown to Jakarta from North Sumatra to protest Ahok’s conviction. A Batak Christian, he wore a red trucker cap with the words “Save Ahok.”

“My heart feels so sick,” he told me, putting his hand on his chest. “This is so bad for the country, but it’s worse for us minorities.”

For the last decade, the Majelis Ulama, a conservative Islamic council with authority to advise the state on religious matters, has issued a barrage of fatwas targeting Muslim minority sects, gay Indonesians, and—most recently—Ahok. Although the council’s decisions are not legally binding, hard-line groups have become increasingly bold in enforcing the fatwas themselves, while police stand idly by. In a notorious instance in 2011, a hard-line group stormed a house where minority Ahmadiyya Muslims were worshipping—and beat three of them to death. In 2015, Muslims stormed three churches in the conservative Aceh province and burned one of them to the ground. A steady drip of small-scale terrorist violence, beginning with the bombing of a Starbucks in Jakarta last January, has continued to target minority groups and the police. Indonesia’s progressive president, Joko Widodo, has begun speaking out strongly against religious intolerance, but it’s not clear that he and his allies have a plan to defeat the country’s hard-line forces. Even though Widodo was Ahok’s close political ally, he was unable to save him once the Majelis Ulama said that he had blasphemed.

After an hour’s time, a commander behind the gate brandishing a bullhorn announced that the crowd could finally enter the grounds and add their tributes to the piles already heaped on the grass. There would be no need for water cannons today: this crowd was smaller, older, and sadder than yesterday’s. As the gate opened, people walked through, dutifully signing their names on a sheet of paper held by a female officer, who smiled shyly as they moved past. Inside was a field covered in an array of colorful plaques—signboards decorated with fake flowers and leaves emblazoned with messages of support—which Indonesians bring to funerals and which have now been appropriated by demonstrators to mourn Ahok’s imprisonment. There were so many that the police had started stacking them together, like books on a shelf, so I had to pull them out in order to read them. Demonstrators bent down to prop up signs that were grass-stained and drooping, and they paused to observe more unusual ones, like people wandering through a sculpture garden. One plaque read: “Mr. Ahok, a hero without adornments.” Another, decorated in a brilliant red, said: “In the darkness the light will shine for Mr. Ahok. God will accompany him and his family.” A young family posed for a photograph alongside it.

Closer to the gates, Lina Hadi and her friends were discussing what to do next. Lina, all agitation and energy, said she knew their actions that day weren’t going to have an effect: Ahok wasn’t going to get out. No one thought the president would risk the wrath of Muslim hard-liners to spring Ahok from prison. “It’s political games!” Lina insisted. (She was right: ten days after the rally Ahok formally dropped his appeal.) But they seemed too desperate to continue. Soon, word reached the group that there would be another demonstration outside the court that had sentenced Ahok. Lina looked around at her friends, gauging their interest. They decided they would go.

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