BANGKOK: It began with a political jest and culminated in a shocking prison sentence.
On Thursday, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a former governor of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, was released from prison after having served two years for blasphemy against Islam.
An ethnic Chinese Christian in a country with the world’s largest Muslim population, Basuki, 52, ran afoul of Indonesia’s blasphemy law when he tried to counter suggestions that faithful Muslims should not support non-Muslim politicians.
As Muslim supporters cheered him on during a public event in 2016, Basuki said in a joking manner that a particular verse in the Quran was being misused to dissuade Muslims from voting for him.
The off-the-cuff comment, which was later edited online to sound dismissive of the Muslim holy book, incensed hard-line Muslim groups, some of which have called for an Islamic caliphate to replace Indonesia’s secular democracy.
Protests in Jakarta against Basuki, who is known by his Chinese nickname, Ahok, drew hundreds of thousands of protesters, even if not all supported the notion of an Indonesia ruled by Sharia.
“We want to turn Indonesia into a true Muslim nation, and we succeeded with Ahok,” said Novel Bamukmin, a spokesman for the Islamic Defenders Front, a radical Islamic group that helped lead the rallies against Basuki.
Although initially far ahead of other candidates in the governor’s race polls, Basuki eventually lost the 2017 election.
His blasphemy conviction that same year, the result of a unanimous decision by a five-judge panel, was seen as a sign of political Islam’s ascent in a country that has long prided itself on its secular governance and pluralist heritage.
“Ahok’s case made a lot of people aware of a problem that I’ve been studying for years, which is that radical Islam is really on the rise in Indonesia,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. “You can’t ignore it anymore.”
A former deputy governor of Jakarta, Basuki took leadership of the Indonesian capital in 2014 when his boss, Joko Widodo, won the race for president of Indonesia.
A moderate Muslim, Joko had a history of promoting non-Muslim political allies. But as hard-line Islam has gained more converts in Indonesia, Joko, who is up for re-election in April, has stressed his Muslim bona fides to combat rumours he is secretly a Christian.
Joko’s opponent in the upcoming election, Prabowo Subianto, a former military general who also ran for president five years ago, has conspicuously aligned himself with hard-line Muslim groups.
Perhaps in response, Joko has chosen as his vice-presidential running mate a Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, who heads a national religious council that has declared fatwas against a minority sect and Muslims wearing Santa costumes, among other edicts. Ma’ruf gave vocal support to the street protests against Basuki that eventually led to his political downfall.
Ma’ruf now says he regrets having testified against Basuki during the former governor’s trial.
In what was seen as another effort to court the conservative Muslim vote, Joko announced last week that Abu Bakr Bashir, a radical Muslim cleric whose preaching was seen as ideological kindling for bombers who have terrorised Indonesia for years, would be released from prison this week on humanitarian grounds.
Bashir, 80, has served multiple stints in jail and is said to be suffering from ill health. He was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison for supporting a militant training camp in Indonesia.
But on Monday, a minister in Joko’s Cabinet said the administration was reviewing Bashir’s case. The decision came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia expressed disappointment in an early release, given that many of the victims of the biggest bombing in Indonesia, of a Bali nightclub in 2002, were Australians. Bashir has never renounced his radical ideology.
Indonesia’s blasphemy law was used sparingly for decades but convictions have increased since the turn of the century when the country began a transition from authoritarian leadership to a boisterous democracy. At least six people were convicted of blasphemy last year, while in the first four decades since the law was enacted only eight individuals were found guilty, according to Harsono of Human Rights Watch.
Attempts to revoke the controversial law have foundered.
Last year, a Buddhist woman named Meliana who had complained about the volume of a mosque loudspeaker near her home was sentenced to 18 months in prison for blasphemy. Meliana, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name, was confronted by angry mobs soon after she made her complaint about the decibel level of the call to prayer. She eventually moved to another city for her safety but was later convicted there.
Last week, in a handwritten note from the detention Centre where he has been held, Basuki urged his supporters not to gather to greet him upon his release for fear of disturbing public order. He thanked God for having allowed him to experience prison life, lest he become “more arrogant, rude.”
In his post-prison life, Basuki has said that he will initially eschew politics, focusing instead on business interests and a television talk show. But the aspirations of a man who once said he was interested in running for president may have been betrayed by his prison letter in which he quoted from a book by the former Indonesian strongman Sukarno.
The book’s title? “The Unfinished Revolution.”