MAY 28 — Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was the front-runner and set to be re-elected as Jakarta governor this year, before a blasphemy scandal cut his campaign, and ultimately his career, short.
The no-nonsense Chinese-Christian politician popularly called Ahok was charged with inciting religious and ethnic hatred in November last year, merely months before the gubernatorial election. Two mega rallies against him were mobilised by hardline Muslims.
By April, Ahok was trounced in the second round of the election by Muslim challenger Anies Baswedan. Just a day after his loss, prosecutors recommended only probation as punishment but he was still sentenced to a two-year jail term earlier this month.
With his life in shambles as the result of a blasphemy accusation, it must have been agonising for Ahok to finally withdraw his appeal this week. His wife, Veronica Tan, was in tears as she publicly read a letter hand written by Ahok from behind bars.
For his supporters, near and far, it was baffling for Ahok to throw in the towel so quick. But the letter betrays Ahok’s thoughts, to show he never took the decision lightly.
“Jakartans would otherwise suffer great losses, in the form of traffic congestion and economic losses resulting from the rallies,” said Ahok.
“It is inappropriate to rally and demonstrate during what I go through. I worry that there will be many parties that will manipulate the rallygoers, what more clashing with those who are against us.”
To put this into context, we should remember why Ahok was accused of blasphemy. It was in late September when Ahok cited the Quranic verse, and only more than a week later that a member of hardline group Islam Defenders Front or FPI lodged a police report based on an edited video by a lecturer.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you do not wish to choose me, you have been deceived by Al-Maidah 51 and so on,” Ahok said. The edited video made him sound as if he alluded that a Quranic verse was a tool to deceive, and a source of lies.
Ahok was referring to verse 5:51 of the Quran, as translated by Sahih International: “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you — then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”
Those who grew up Muslim would have heard this verse more than once, as a cautionary tale about trusting or making an alliance with Christians and Jews, with the insinuation that adherents from the two religions would not rest until they ruin all Muslims.
And with Ahok — just like it was with many non-Muslims in Muslim-majority constituencies elsewhere, I am sure — it had been used as justification against voting him.
So here was a man who lost himself an election because of it, and then looks to have been failed by the Indonesian court... and yet, he thought first of his supporters, of Jakarta citizens’ welfare, while deliberating losing two years of his life.
Perhaps he did it because there was slim chance of him succeeding in his appeal anyway, as is usually the case when you are going up against the status quo in a Muslim-majority country.
In Malaysia, we learnt this the hard way with numerous cases of judicial reviews against decisions made by the Shariah courts that literally took years to complete. Some were not even successful. But mostly, they were perhaps waged more as a war of attrition to break down the spirits of the challengers, with appeal after appeal by the state when courts decided against them.
Borders bookstore manager Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz took three years before the Federal Court ruled in her favour and she was freed from her legal battle with the Federal Territories Islamic authorities, who had unlawfully raided the shop over a book.
Similarly, octogenarian intellectual Kassim Ahmad went up and down the courts for three years before the Federal Court ruled in favour of him, after the same Islamic authority unlawfully arrested him for allegedly insulting Islam.
It has been five years since the start of the case involving Negri Sembilan’s anti-transgender Shariah law, and the Federal Court had in 2015 overturned a landmark Court of Appeal ruling favouring the minority group. Their fight may not be over yet, but at this point questions would maybe have been asked: would continuing the fight be worth that much?
It is hard. It is painful. It is all these to challenge the status quo for a better tomorrow. And not enough credit, gratitude and appreciation is given to those who sacrifice their all for it.
For Ahok, it meant no more. “I have learnt to forgive and accept all this,” he wrote.
He ended the letter with two verses from Psalms, 131:3 and 138:8 — “Put your hope in the Lord now and always ... The Lord will work out his plan for my life”.
Ahok’s talk of “God’s plan” however reverberated with me the last week, especially as a spate of violence linked to the Islamic State, and committed in his name struck across the globe — from the traumatic blast at the Manchester Ariana Grande concert, to a rampage that saw thousands fleeing Mindanao, to a bus full of Coptic Christians including kids gunned down in Cairo, and even a suicide bombing in Jakarta itself.
As we get more desensitised towards these despicable murders by such cults of death, we now tend to simplify it more and more — either by blaming Western foreign policy, or driving the narrative away from recognising the problematic tenets that allow violence to take root.
We must resist doing so, and in the words of counter-extremist activist Maajid Nawaz: if this is the new “normal”, then this “normal” must not be allowed to continue.
“Gusti ora sare,” so Ahok wrote to console himself, a Javanese phrase meaning “God never sleeps.”
Neither should we, never lull ourselves into a world where injustice and violence in the the name of religion goes unchecked and unopposed. Eternal vigilance is the price, indeed.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.