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Indonesia’s blasphemy protests (thehindu)


Some 200,000 white-clad Indonesians took to the streets of Jakarta to call for the arrest of the city’s governor, Basuki Purnama. Mr. Purnama, who is a “double minority” for being ethnically Chinese and a Christian, riled the sentiments of certain hardline sections in September when he said a Koranic verse had been used to trick voters into believing that Muslims ought not be led by a non-Muslim. Since then, Indonesia has been convulsed by protests, including one near the presidential palace in early November that turned violent. The embattled Mr. Purnama has been slapped with blasphemy charges, and an investigation is ongoing. His political proximity to President Joko Widodo does not appear to have slowed the momentum of the protests. Prior to winning the presidency in 2014, Mr. Widodo was the governor of Jakarta, and Mr. Purnama, a frontrunner in the February 2017 governorship election, is on track to forge a pathway to even higher political office. Mr. Widodo has been silent on the motives driving the latest protest, even as he appeared at the scene to praise its relatively peaceful tenor. However, the recent arrest for treason of at least eight people, including Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno, suggests that other political factors may be at play, including an attempt to whip up public sentiment against Mr. Purnama securing a second term as governor.

Given the Jakarta-centric locus of the protests, it is likely that anger over Mr. Purnama launching large-scale slum evictions in the city has brought many from among the poorer sections to their feet. Yet the fact that the demonstration was orchestrated by the right-wing Islamic Defenders Front Party, which also set up charity operations in the affected North Jakarta neighbourhoods, indicates that support for Islamist ideology from local residents has been a critical factor. This development, if it gains wider momentum across the countryside, could be a retrograde step for Indonesia, which has until now, like neighbouring Malaysia, stood out as a regional bulwark against extremism, maintaining secular tolerance of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist minorities. Adventurism of this sort could endanger the accommodating fabric of Indonesian society years after the post-Bali bombing purge of fundamentalists. This is especially a matter of concern in the context of suspicion that hundreds of Indonesian youth recently travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State. While Mr. Widodo’s encouraging remarks to the protesters are understandable, the onus is on him to take a stand against allowing the latest turn of events from turning into a launching pad for a more intolerant national ethos.

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