A Ridiculous Travesty

by 8 Degrees of Latitude

Bali, May 9, 2017

THERE are several things that can be said about the two-year jail sentence meted out to Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (Ahok) for his astoundingly correct but politically incautious observation that matters of religion are often subject to varying interpretations.

One is that no one sentient would argue with his point. But he knew, or he should have known, that he was dealing with the wall-eyed crowd from the Islamic Defenders Front, the FPI, which apparently believes rational thought is a pernicious disease found only in kafirs who ignorantly and unwisely follow other, haram, religions.

Another is that Ahok, who is not a good politician (that’s not necessarily a bad thing) and who has a habit of tripping over wires more cautious beings would see in plain sight, was setting himself for a fall. He is a Christian of Indonesian Chinese ethnicity and Jakarta, like most places in the crowded bits of Indonesia, is predominantly a Muslim city.

Anywhere else his faith and ethnicity would be at most a talking point. In Indonesia, where the full sunlight of daytime still has to fall on many things, including good governance and a true sense of participatory national feeling (beyond regional and often obtuse pejoratives) Ahok was foolish to disturb the mediaeval shadows that still inform much Indonesian discourse and significant elements of its culture.

That said, it passes belief that a court would sentence a leading public official to two years in jail for making a general statement with which even a scholarly Islamic cleric would have difficulty arguing. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is literally the word of God. The supporting liturgy with which Islam has equipped itself over the 1,400 years since Mohammad received the word explains and (arguably) sets in context the revelations of the Qur’an. The Hadiths can be interpreted. The Qur’an cannot: It simply is.

Non-Muslims – and even Muslims themselves if they wish to stick a toe into headstrong waters – are equally entitled to suggest that rationality deserves a place in Islamic thinking. But these are things for scholarly debate, not for political argument. That much is common sense, for one thing, as well as polite.

That such politeness is generally not reciprocated, sent in the other direction – from those who repeat the unarguable word of God from the minarets and then apply this deist fiat to political dispatch boxes now found in many a mosque – is by the way. The nuance of the Christian New Testament, where an eye for an eye is sensibly replaced by two wrongs not making a right, is absent from the Qur’an. That is, unless you read it with an eye that suggests things may have changed, not to mention word usage, over nearly a millennium and a half.

Perhaps other, less hide-bound, jurists than the panel that sat on the bench at Ahok’s trial will amend the judgement of that court on appeal. They certainly should. It is for expert jurists to determine whether Indonesia’s blasphemy laws were broken by the otherwise inoffensive comment the governor of Jakarta made to lower economic status electors whose votes were being sought by his opponents. The fact that Indonesia has blasphemy laws – it’s not unique in this: such laws exist, for example, in the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland among other places – is beside the point, though it sits rather oddly with the Pancasila principles and rather a lot of modern life.

So those who would like to see Indonesia become Raya (Greater Indonesia) should today be considering the appalling damage that has been done to their cause by the judges of the Jakarta court who decided to jail Ahok on a trumped up political charge of blasphemy.

Among those who should be worrying about great things, as opposed to banal political manoeuvres, however useful these may be to themselves, is former army general Prabowo Subianto. His political pal beat Ahok in last month’s gubernatorial election with the significant assistance of the blasphemy charge, and will become governor in October.

It worked as a political tactic. For that, it required neither moral judgement nor an ethical base. In fact, the absence of these benefits was a decided plus.

But it has seriously dented Indonesia’s claim to be a leading light in Southeast Asia on the basis of its moral authority and its economy. If Prabowo’s vision for Indonesia Raya includes dressing up political manoeuvres in mediaeval misapprehensions, then his vision won’t be seen as great by many people at all, except for a bunch of fundamentalists who insist that Islam is Indonesia’s only way, and who happily blaspheme other religious beliefs (free of penalty) to maintain this flat-footed, fat-headed proposition and their place near the centre of power.

It may well be true that the real target of these shenanigans is President Joko Widodo and that Ahok is simply collateral damage on the way to Prabowo’s great Indonesia, which he will almost certainly campaign on for the next presidential elections.

But that makes it even more dangerous, as well as worse, more venal, and thoroughly banal. In a word: It’s the Trump card.