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Ahok is innocent and Indonesia needs him

  • 15 May 2017


The recent sentencing of Ahok, the Christian Chinese-Indonesian Governor of Jakarta, to two years in jail for blasphemy will leave many Australians confounded if not, sadly, further averse to Indonesia.

The court's decision is not a small thing. Jakarta alone has a population roughly that of New South Wales and Victoria combined. Jailing its governor is the equivalent of putting an Australian state premier behind bars, conceivable only for the most egregious of crimes.

When the official in question is also widely admired for his competency, opposition to corruption, and drive to reform the massive mess which is Jakarta, one could be forgiven for assuming  his blasphemy must have been of medieval proportions.

Did he denounce Islam as 'evil' like the American evangelist Franklin Graham? Did he publicly denounce God as 'stupid' like Stephen Fry, now the subject of investigation for blasphemy by the Irish police? On the contrary. Ahok is deeply respectful of Islam and has many Muslim supporters. Though a Christian, he is also impressively Islam-literate and can quote the Koran, an unusual ability for a Christian.

Ironically it is this knowledge that worked against him. He asked an Indonesian audience not to be persuaded to vote against him by opponents who claimed the Koran prohibits Muslims from voting for non-Muslims. The implication that leaders should be chosen for their competence not their religion or ethnic background will sound like common sense rather than blasphemy to most people.

But extreme Muslims claimed his comment vilified the Koran and that voting for an infidel is apostasy. Their campaign mobilised huge numbers, mainly from outside Jakarta, and resulted in Ahok losing the recent election for the governorship, and his freedom. Unless his appeal to the supreme court succeeds, the blasphemy finding also means he will be banned for life from running for public office.

The affair has already done a serious disservice to Indonesia. It presents Indonesia as fanatical, racist and sectarian. While these perceptions are patently unfair, the affair also reveals some aspects of contemporary Indonesia that are obscured by Canberra's often lavish praise of our important neighbour.

Radical Islam is increasing in strength and confidence in Indonesia. 'Be careful what you wish for,' an Indonesian academic said to me during the anti-democratic Suharto years.


"As with Indonesia's mock trials on human rights violations in East Timor when the court absolved the powerful military, the court has compromised its independence and bowed to external pressure."


He went on to