(CNSNews.com) – The capital of the world’s biggest Islamic country was the scene Friday of the latest in a series of mass demonstrations by Muslims demanding that the Christian governor of Jakarta be punished for “blasphemy.”
More than 22,000 police officers were deployed to maintain control of the “Defend Islam” rally, which drew an estimated 150,000 people.
The protestors already chalked up one victory earlier this week, when the Attorney General’s Office announced that it will proceed with a trial against Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Unappeased, they continue to demand his immediate arrest.
The U.S. Embassy closed its consular section Friday and recommended that American citizens avoid the protest – described as “a large-scale ‘mass prayer gathering’ in central Jakarta.”
“Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence,” the embassy said in an advisory, adding that “extremist groups” could also take advantage of the event “to incite or carry out violence.”
The Australian and Japanese embassies also issued cautionary advisories.
Basuki, the target of the protestors’ anger, is an ethnic-Chinese Christian who has been generally regarded as an effective, straight-talking administrator.
Popularly known by the nickname Ahok, he rose from the position of deputy governor to succeed then-governor Joko Widodo, after Widodo was elected Indonesia’s president in 2014.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and the fourth most populous overall, has been characterized by President Obama – who spent several childhood years there – and others as a “model” of Muslim democracy.
“Much of the world could learn a great deal from your tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism, which is so clearly embedded in the DNA of Indonesian people,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a 2014 visit to Jakarta.
The appointment months later of a minority Christian as governor of Jakarta was widely viewed as further evidence of that much-touted religious and ethnic tolerance.
But from the outset he was opposed by fundamentalists who argue – citing the Qur’an – that Muslims should not be governed by “infidels.” (The same arguments were aired when Widodo and Basuki ran on a joint ticket in 2012 gubernatorial elections, and handily won.)
His critics point specifically to sura 5:51 of the Qur’an, which says in part, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies.” Some translations use the words “friends” or “protectors.”
With Basuki campaigning for re-election in February 2017, he has now run into trouble that could cost him not just the race, but his freedom. And sura 5:51 of the Qur’an is at the center of the controversy.
It erupted in late September when in a stump speech on an island off the coast of Jakarta, Basuki told his audience they should vote according to their conscience and not feel obliged to vote for him.
According to some Indonesian news reports, he told his listeners they had been lied to by people misquoting sura 5:51. What his detractors claim he said, however, was that they had been lied to by the verse of the Qur’an itself.
Further complicating the matter, police later acknowledged that a video clip which went viral on social media had been deliberately edited to make it appear that the governor was criticizing the Qur’an.
‘Insulted the Qur’an’
Leading the blasphemy charge has been a radical group known as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which has been linked to the forced closure of churches and raids on liquor and gambling outlets. (FPI is also known for threats against Westerners; during the Iraq war it claimed to have signed up scores of volunteers to fight against U.S. forces there.)
Despite its record, the FPI is often dismissed as a fringe group. But the problems for Basuki worsened significantly when the executive board of the country’s main body of Islamic scholars, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), issued a statement declaring that the governor had “insulted the Qur’an, ulemas and Muslims” with the September comment.
Basuki issued a public apology, saying it had not been his intention to denigrate Islam or the Qur’an. But police named him a suspect, and their investigations led to the Attorney-General’s announcement this week that he will stand trial.
At an earlier mass rally last month, protestors demanding Basuki’s ouster – and in some cases his execution – clashed with police. One protestor was killed.
The governor is being charged under two articles of the national criminal code, one dealing with the spreading of hatred or contempt directed at a population group, and the other with “blasphemy.” Conviction carries prison terms of four and five years respectively.
The blasphemy article outlaws actions that defame a religion, with the intention of preventing other people from adhering to any religion that is based on belief in one God.
Calling on the government to drop the blasphemy case, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Rafendi Djamin, said, “Indonesia prides itself on its image as a tolerant country. This case would set a deeply worrying precedent, making it hard for the authorities to argue that they respect all faiths.”