Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, was accused of attacking the Koran. (AP: Dita Alangkara)
The mob came for Jakarta’s governor Ahok, and it caught him.
It’s not so surprising — Indonesia has a history of ugly, if effective, free-for-alls: in 1965, when military-backed militias slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its opponents; and in 1998, when the mob turned on Jakarta’s Chinese community, looting and burning and raping.
And now, a competent if brash governor, once a symbol of Indonesian tolerance and diversity, has been brought down by a mob convinced he insulted Islam.
And all because of this, his response to clerics who said the Koran verse Al Maidah 51 prevents Muslims from voting for a Christian:
“Maybe in your heart you think that you couldn’t vote for me — but you are being lied to by using Al Maidah 51,” he said.
It barely caused a ripple when he first said it.
But then extremists like the FPI’s Rizieq Shihab saw an opportunity to bring down the Christian, ethnic Chinese politician who was also an ally of President Joko Widodo.
Muslim protesters shout slogans outside court on the final day of Ahok’s trial. (AP: Achmad Ibrahim)
Rizieq and his ilk convinced their supporters that Ahok was attacking the Koran, not the clerics.
And they woke the mob.
Court protests a reminder to judges
A huge protest in early November spooked Indonesian authorities, who remembered what happened the last time such big numbers were on the streets — the end of President Suharto’s 30-year reign.
Ahok was charged with blasphemy soon afterwards, and in March his trial began.
Witnesses in the case included Habib Rizieq.
A big crowd of Islamists gathered outside the trial each week to remind the judges what would happen if he was freed: they’d go back on to the streets.
Ahok was supported by moderate Muslim organisations, such as Nahdlatul Ulama, and even prosecutors said he didn’t intend to insult Islam, so he shouldn’t go to jail.
But the judges disagreed: Ahok deliberately insulted Islamic groups, threatened Indonesian unity, and didn’t show remorse.
He deserved to be jailed.
A career in tatters
Ahok’s lawyers will appeal the penalty, but it would be a brave court that would overturn this decision — it risks bringing the mob back onto the streets.
His political career is finished.
There was talk that he’d be given a Jokowi cabinet position. That was always unlikely, but it’s impossible now — it would give Jokowi’s many enemies another opportunity to attack the president ahead of Indonesia’s 2019 elections.
A few hours after the verdict, the President said Indonesians should respect the decision and the nation’s justice system.
“This is how a democratic country solves our differences,” he said.
He could have added: not like we solved our differences in 1965, or 1998.