Indonesian verdict threat to diversity

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 10, 2017
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Must backlashes against minorities always follow advances towards equality? Unfortunately, that appeared to be the case in the 2016 American presidential election, and it seems to be happening again in other countries.

In May, an Indonesian court sentenced Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok (his Chinese name), to two years in prison for "blasphemy." When he became deputy governor of the capital in 2014, he was the first Christian and the first Chinese to serve in the position. It was hailed as a step towards realizing Indonesia's national motto "unity in diversity."

However, just as America's "post-racial moment" following President Obama's victory was never true, neither was Indonesia's slogan. In May 1998, Indonesians torched and looted Chinese-owned shops in Medan, Surkakarta, and Jakarta. In 2008, bigoted Muslims ransacked a church and community in Masohi, angry about something said by a Christian teacher who was arrested for "blasphemy."

Everywhere, minorities are an easy scapegoat for economic and political problems. In the U.S., Donald Trump says immigrants and foreigners are "taking American jobs." Anger over deaths attributed to police officers in Baltimore and Ferguson resulted in rioters attacking Chinese-owned shops. There's the same economically-illiterate idea that immigrants who open businesses are hurting the community.

Since Trump's election, minorities have been attacked and murdered in a number of hate crimes. Two Americans of Indian ancestry were shot and killed at a bar in Kansas in February, after a racist white guy told them to "go back to your own country" and a white boy in Portland in late May stabbed two white men to death after they confronted him when he was shouting hate slogans at a Muslim woman on a public train. Meanwhile, European countries have seen right-wing parties compete in and win national elections.

From a social science standpoint, members of an ethnic majority often become resentful when they see minorities make some advances that are seen as a threat to the dominant power position of the majority.

Indonesia is particularly troubling because it not only suffers from illegal violence committed by civilians, but also State-sanctioned suppression by the government. It has theocratic strictures in its law, and has for a long time.

Before the conviction of Ahok, there had already been more than 100 people convicted of "blas-phemy" since 2004, according to both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Some were convicted simply for conducting prayers in their own Indonesian language (rather than in Arabic). The conviction of a serving governor, who was charged during his reelection campaign, shows no one is safe.

Charges against Ahok were just as flimsy as any other case, and probably politically-motivated. He had given a speech refuting claims by people who portrayed the Quran as a discriminatory document. In fact, it was Ahok who said that verse Al-Maidah 51 did not proscribe Muslims from voting for non-Muslim candidates for office.

Rather, it was his fundamentalist Muslim critics like the Islamic Defenders Front who suggested the Quran forbids Muslims from voting for non-Muslims. Ironically then, it was the most sancti-monious of Indonesian Muslims who portrayed the Quran as bigoted and xenophobic, while the non-Muslim Ahok tried to defend the Quran's reputation.

However, the problem of the blasphemy law goes beyond just its most egregious misapplication. In practice, it is used to protect the dominant religion and restrict any discussion of religion that might be deemed critical by followers of other religions.

Religion mustn't be viewed as some kind of topic off limits from criticism. A country cannot be pluralistic and diverse if only one opinion of the truth is allowed.

Around the Indonesian-Chinese community, it is reported there are growing fears of a repeat of 1998. Christian churches are being closed, even as Islamic prayers are still blared from louds-peakers. And a campaign against gay people has been stepped up in the past few months.

It is a reminder that the fight for equality doesn't end. We must continue to be vigilant.

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of


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