Tolerating Blasphemy: Lessons From An Indonesian Election

by vaughn_admin  //  

February 15, 2017

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, has for months been roiled by a chaotic election that has dominated the headlines. The uproar does not even stem from a national election but one for the Governorship of the capital city, Jakarta.

The frontrunner has been Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, universally known as “Ahok.” In the previous election in Jakarta he had successfully run for Deputy Governor partnered with Gubernatorial candidate Joko Widodo, widely known as “Jokowi.” When Jokowi subsequently succeeded in being elected President of Indonesia, Ahok was automatically elevated to the Governorship.

Ahok can be abrasive: he does not suffer fools gladly, and is also pretty tough on non-fools—something that is especially jarring in a culture that values politeness and harmony.

More strikingly, Ahok is ethnic Chinese and a Christian, a double minority.

But for most voters these matters were much less important than the fact that he is honest and energetic and gets things done even with an often sclerotic government. He focuses on practical things people that most people care about, such as transport, traffic congestion and frequent flooding. People of every religion hate ‘macet’—congestion—and Jakarta probably has more of it than any other city in the world. Hence, in the campaign’s early days he had the support of most Muslims, as well as others.

However, in a campaign speech on September 27, 2016, he referred to a verse in the Quran, al-Maidah 51, that warned Muslims against taking Jews or Christians as allies. This text was being used by Islamists to assert that Muslims could not vote for Ahok, and he in turn said that such teachers were misleading their followers. The largely Muslim crowd that heard him that day appeared to take no offense. However, a few days later a misleadingly edited video of the talk was posted on the internet and rapidly went viral.

Following a hubbub of accusations and counter-accusations, on October 11 the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) stated that it believed that Ahok had committed blasphemy and that the police should investigate the matter. In Jakarta in November and December there were massive, peaceful demonstrations against blasphemy, one of them drawing half a million people. Without admitting guilt, Ahok apologized for any offense given, but the police declared him a suspect and he has since gone to trial, although still allowed to campaign.

But Indonesia always surprises and intrigues. Ahok had slumped in the polls, but now appears to be leading once more, despite the ongoing well-publicized trial. A Chinese Christian currently on trial for blasphemy may yet be elected Governor of the capital of the world’s largest Muslim country.

And amidst this fraught campaign even the humblest people show insight and toleration. When Ahok went to campaign in the Pesanggrahan district in South Jakarta he was greeted by one of the locals, a man named Fikri. Fikri said he had earlier joined the demonstrations against Ahok and could never support him because he was convinced that the Governor had committed blasphemy.

But although Fikri thought Ahok a blasphemer, he did not insult, assail or assault him or, as might happen in many parts of the world, try to kill him. Instead, he gave Ahok a Quran, not as a rebuke to show that the Governor was ignorant of what it said, but as a gift welcoming him to the neighborhood.

Fikri added: “It’s understandable that many people from areas across the city have rejected his campaign visits. But, let Ahok convey his aspirations [for Jakarta] in this area without rejection, so that the people can know who’s wrong and who’s right,” as described by the Jakarta Post.

In the middle of a sometimes bitterly divided election campaign, we get an example of true toleration, something desperately needed in America, where the word has been twisted beyond recognition. Historically, toleration meant, as with Roger Williams, putting up with things that we dislike or with which we disagree. It means bearing something that we do not really want.  We still retain this usage when we talk of tolerating pain or noisy children.

This was why James Madison pushed successfully to have the word “toleration” removed from the final draft of the 1776 Virginia Bill of Rights. He thought, correctly, that the government as such had no business disagreeing with or disliking a citizen’s religion. While individual people should certainly tolerate their neighbors, the government should simply recognize their rights.

However, in today’s world, “toleration” often has a bad name, though for different and sometimes contradictory reasons.  For some it smacks of a vague indiscriminate openness that refuses to take questions of truth seriously.  Others say that we should not criticize or reject others’ views but must celebrate our differences: mere toleration is then seen as narrow-minded or bigoted.

But Fikri is a genuinely tolerant man. He knew well that he disagreed with Ahok, and could not celebrate blasphemy, and so would not vote for him or support him, and said so publicly and clearly. But he also welcomed the Governor and treated him with kindness.

Fikri could be a role model, and is a certainly a rebuke to many Americans’ behavior in this election and post-election season. Especially when he added that: “If Ahok wins the election, as a good citizen, I will accept it wholeheartedly.”

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and Senior Fellow at the Leimena Institute, Jakarta

**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**