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Jakarta Post

Ahok and hate speech: The (unexpected) outcome of democracy

  • Hendri Yulius
    Hendri Yulius

    Writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies

Sydney   /   Thu, November 3, 2016   /  08:54 am
Ahok and hate speech: The (unexpected) outcome of democracy Thousands of protesters join a rally on Jl. Medan Merdeka Timur in Central Jakarta on Oct. 14. They demanded legal proceedings against inactive Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama on alleged blasphemy. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

Ever since Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahja Purnama announced he would seek reelection, a torrent of both support and protests has dominated national debate.

The rising popularity of Ahok seems intriguing and threatening to other candidates, given the fact that he is a non-Muslim Chinese-Indonesian. Nevertheless, his identity and personal traits has also incited hatred against Chinese-Indonesians and non-Muslims, manifested in a number of marches involving hard-line Islamic groups, calling him a kafir (infidel) and urging Muslims to not vote for him.

Since he is well known for his honesty and strong personality, his public commentaries often invoke negative sentiment from religious conservative groups. When he replaced now President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo as governor in 2014, the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) held massive demonstrations in front of City Hall, demanding that Ahok step down from his postBesides religious hard-liners, activists have also questioned his commitment to human rights because of the evictions of the poor from informal settlements.

In June, Ahok told public schools to stop making hijabs compulsory for female Muslim students. He emphasized that the substance of religiosity could not be defined through enforcing religious attire, since he said he had witnessed a girl taking off her hijab once having left school. Hence, it is essential for them to wear it with respect as religious virtues, rather than wearing it in school just because of rules. However, opponents were already emotional because he also used the word “napkin” to illustrate children who treated hijabs disrespectfully. His words were interpreted as a blasphemy, forbidding female students to follow the virtues of being Muslim girls.

The push for legal action against his alleged blasphemy continued in October. Thousands of members of hard-line Islamic groups marched through the city from Istiqlal Mosque in Central Jakarta, demanding that legal action be taken against Ahok. He reportedly told people in Thousand Islands regency not to be deceived by the Quran’s Surah al-Maidah: 51. Protestors dressed in white attire yelled, “We want a Muslim governor” and “Kafir!” Although he has apologized for his statement, the Islamic hard-liners have called on Muslims to take part in a second demonstration set to be held on Nov. 4, to push for legal action against Ahok.

Whether as a campaign tool to defeat him in the upcoming gubernatorial election, attacks against particular religions (and ethnicities) by conflating it with infidelity signals an unexpected shift in democratic Indonesia.

During the repressive New Order regime, then president Soeharto repressed dissenting ideas and groups by relying upon a Sukarno-era presidential decree, the 1963 Subversion Law to curb communism. Soon after it came into power, the New Order began to use the decree to ban the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and Darul Islam, which strived to enact an Islamic state. Under this authoritarian era, Islamic political groups hence were suppressed. In Masculinity, Sexuality and Islam (2015), scholar Kathryn Robinson demonstrates that the state’s fear of potential influence from the Iranian revolution led Soeharto to prohibit political organizing around Islamic-derived ideologies and slogans in 1985. In similar vein, in 1982, a policy was enacted to ban the wearing of hijabs in public educational settings. Only in 1991 was the ban lifted.

Discussions around ethnicity, religion and race (SARA) relations were also policed and banned during this era, as they were deemed sensitive. This helped Soeharto  consolidate his power and subsequently curb separatist and interethnic conflicts. Despite his/her ethnicity and religiosity, everyone perceived themselves as Indonesian. However, in Religion, Politics and Gender in Indonesia (2010), researcher Sonja van Wienchelen points out that due to the worsening relationships with the military, Soeharto approached and reconciled with Islamic organizations. These dramatic changes resulted in the expansion of Muslim programs on TV and increased funding for Islamic schools. Although the state still controlled Islamic politics, the realignment of the state and Islamic groups has enabled the latter to enter the political arena and exert its power in the democratic era.

The collapse of the Soeharto regime in 1998 signified Indonesia’s transition to democracy. The previously suppressed groups proliferated. Freedom of expression and media has also been guaranteed by the democratic moves. Prohibitions on SARA are not enacted strongly anymore and have even slowly faded. Islamic fundamentalist politics emerged openly and exerted their power through “moral-based” regulations or sharia.   Decentralization or regional autonomy has further eased steps to gaining more political power. Aceh, for example, has become a special province implementing sharia. It is also interesting to observe that there has been increased piety among Indonesians through the use of religious symbols. Islamic television programs and missionary endeavors have also mushroomed.

Further, religious vigilantes and conservative groups are getting more powerful in spreading moral panic, raiding activities deemed immoral and being actively involved in politics, calling on people to not vote for non-Muslim leaders. In the last presidential election, Jokowi’s religiosity was even questioned.

These remarkable shifts are central to examining the unexpected outcomes of democratization in Indonesia. While freedom of expression is now guaranteed, hate speech has gotten out of control. Some would argue that Indonesia’s democracy is still nascent and hence needs more time to become more mature and substantive. Nevertheless, whatever the case, it is important to be continuously reminded that bigots are everywhere, and we should choose leaders based on their programs, track record and commitment, instead of religion and ethnicity.



The writer, who obtained his Master’s in public policy from the National University of Singapore, is the writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies. He is currently pursuing his Masters by Research in Gender and Cultural Studies in The University of Sydney. See other writings by Hendri Yulius here.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.