1,000s rally for tolerance in Indonesia amid blasphemy probe of Christian governor

People take part in a rally against what they see as growing racial and religious intolerance in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, in Jakarta, Indonesia November 19, 2016. © Iqro Rinaldi
Thousands of Indonesians have taken to the streets of Jakarta to protest racial and religious intolerance. The peaceful rally came in response to a government investigation into a Chinese-Christian governor who is alleged to have insulted Islam.

Saturday’s event in downtown Jakarta saw people dressed in red and white – Indonesia’s national colors. The crowd included people from all walks of life – religious clerics, members of human rights groups, lawmakers, and concerned citizens – as they held up posters and chanted for unity among their country’s diverse peoples.

Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known by his Chinese nickname Ahok, has been crucified for insulting Islam by some members of the public, as well as opposition politicians, since he accused his rivals of “lying” about the meaning of a Koranic verse. Apologies haven’t helped, nor did the revelation that his comments had been inaccurately subtitled.

Islamists from near and far, including members of Al-Nusra Front in Syria, used the opportunity to pounce on the Christian-Chinese politician, accusing him of twisting the Koran and issuing calls for violence at a recent rally demanding his removal.

This has opened up old wounds, and the country now finds itself in the throes of a fresh ethno-religious upheaval that culminated in Wednesday’s decision to prosecute Purnama for making his remarks. He will now have to stand trial on the charge of blasphemy and could face up to five years in prison over the confusion.

Saturday’s counter-rally was called to demonstrate that there are opposing voices in Indonesian society.

“This is about diversity, but also about unity. We have to separate politics from ethnicity, religion, and race,” Iwan Saputra, 25, told Reuters, while stressing “I want Indonesia to stay united.”

“The economy is growing, infrastructure is being built everywhere. Don’t let this all be destroyed just because of ego,” Liberal Islam Network activist Saidiman Ahmad said.

Some analysts claim that the trial is an affront to democracy and a serious hindrance to efforts to build a tolerant and pluralistic society, given that Indonesia officially recognizes six religions. Although it subscribes to a moderate form of Islam, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and occasionally grapples with intolerance toward its religious and ethnic minorities, which include Buddhists and Christians. However, religious attacks are typically rather mild and often aimed at denying senior government positions to non-Muslims.

Unfortunately for Purnama, his high office and identity as a Chinese-Christian may as well have put a bullseye on his back. The governor’s remarks referencing the Koran drew over 100,000 people into the streets of the Indonesian capital earlier this month to demand his removal and call for the city not to vote for him in the upcoming February elections.