Indonesian Muslim demonstrators, holding banners that read "put Ahok in jail" march towards the presidential palace during a protest against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, over an alleged blasphemy in Jakarta on Nov. 4. (Photo by AFP)
When Jakarta Governor Barsuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama carelessly told voters last month that they should not be swayed by a conservative interpretation of the Quran that forbids Muslims from being ruled by non-Muslims, he opened a Pandora’s Box that President Joko Widodo will find difficult to close.
This goes far beyond efforts to prevent Ahok winning a second term in next February’s hotly-contested Jakarta gubernatorial elections. For Muslim extremists, at least, it is another opportunity to chip away at the foundations of Indonesia as a secular state.
As an ethnic-Chinese Christian who, in fact, has attended Islamic schools and whose father has financed the building of mosques in his native Sumatra, he is now facing a possible charge of blasphemy.
It may be ancient history, but Quranic verse al-Maidah 51 has its origins in the 624 conflict in which the Jews and Christians failed to honor an agreement to help Muhammad’s Medinian Muslims in their battle with the Meccan forces.
"O, you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as awliyam, says the verse, using a word in the Quran which can be interpreted as either allies or leaders. Hard-line clerics take the view that they are one in the same thing.
In pushing that interpretation they are exposing a conflict between strict Quranic teachings and Indonesia’s laws, most notably the 1945 Constitution, which lies at the foundation of the secular state.
In some ways, it calls into question what previous president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono routinely traded on at international forums — Islam and democracy co-existing harmoniously in the world’s largest Muslim nation.
Mainstream Indonesian Muslims are not nearly as tolerant as they are made out to be, susceptible to manipulation and not necessarily agreeing with the separation of mosque and state.
A grim-faced Widodo, whose win in the 2014 presidential race allowed running mate Ahok to take over the governorship, clearly understands the stakes. He has been reaching out to Muslim groups in an effort to calm the debate.
Ahok has been extremely effective at his job, cleaning up the notoriously corrupt city hall and focusing on transparent governance, even establishing a television channel to cover legislative council and other internal meetings.
But his outspokenness has often got him into trouble — and this one more than most. Indeed, it was an opportunity Islamic hard-liners had been looking for as they chafed over having an "infidel" managing the Indonesian capital.
His careless mistake does not explain the strength of the outcry, which brought together not only the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and other radical groups, but also powerful political interests determined to end Ahok’s political career.
Backed by ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), Ahok still tops the polls ahead of former education minister Anies Baswedan and Agus Yudhoyono, the elder son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Both of Ahok’s rivals were last-minute entrants in the field, with Baswedan the choice of the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) and former presidential candidate Prabowo’s Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).
Now younger son Edhie Baskoro has failed to measure up, Yudhoyono plucked elder brother Agus from a promising military career to represent his Democrat Party as possibly the first step towards creating a political dynasty.
If Ahok escapes the blasphemy charge, it remains to be seen whether voters will follow what happened in 2012 when Widodo and Ahok won by a landslide in a demonstration of displeasure over primordial efforts to disqualify them.
Only 11-13 percent of Indonesians have voted for Sharia-based parties in the four national elections held since the country embarked on the road to democracy in 1998. But it will take many more years, if ever, before a non-Muslim becomes president of Indonesia.
Widodo has accused political parties of fomenting the current unrest, but critics are worried he is following the lead of Yudhoyono, who was widely criticized for allowing extremists to seize the momentum during his decade-long rule.
Islamic radicals are unlikely to accept anything but Ahok’s removal from the gubernatorial race, threatening another massive demonstration on Nov. 25 if police fail to bring charges. It is this Widodo is trying to forestall.
Jakarta’s Chinese community has already been spooked by an outbreak of violence in the city’s northern suburbs, where most of them are concentrated, on the evening of the otherwise peaceful Nov. 4 rally.
Memories are still fresh of the two days of rape and bloodshed inflicted on the community in the riots that led to Suharto’s resignation. The Chinese were specifically targeted because of their disproportionate hold they have on the Indonesian economy.
John McBeth is an author and journalist from New Zealand who has spent the majority of his career in Southeast Asia.