On Dec. 13, the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known throughout Indonesia as “Ahok,” wiped away tears as he told a panel of judges he did not intend to insult or defame Islam. On trial for blasphemy, it was a shocking fall for Indonesia’s fastest-rising political star. Not even Ahok’s most bitter political opponent, of which there are many, could have foreseen it.

In fact, Ahok was expected to sail through elections to the governor’s office, a post that has traditionally been a stepping stone to the presidency, as it was for Ahok’s political ally and mentor, current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Instead, Ahok, who relishes a combative and bruising type of politics, complained about “unscrupulous politicians who don’t want to compete fairly in the election.”

Ahok’s story began in 2014 when he was the deputy governor of Jakarta and Jokowi, then the young, progressive and popular Jakarta governor, ascended the presidential office. Jokowi appointed Ahok to take over as the new governor of the region containing Indonesia’s capital city. Ahok had an excellent record, helping Jokowi push through progressive legislation in Jakarta, such as universal health care and anti-corruption measures.

But, for a variety of reasons, his appointment to the governorship was still unusual. Indonesia as a nation, and its principal island Java in particular, hold tradition and lineage as important signifiers; Ahok’s appointment respected neither. He is ethnically Chinese, a minority that has often been isolated and discriminated against throughout Indonesia’s history but especially under General Suharto, the dictator who governed Indonesia from 1967 to 1998. Chinese Indonesians make up less than 4 percent of the population but account for a large number of the wealthiest Indonesians, something Suharto took advantage of, relying on wealthy Chinese-Indonesian conglomerates to line his pockets while he effectively banned ethnically Chinese from public life within the country.

Javanese culture prides itself on decorum. Grown men will tie themselves in knots to avoid ever saying a direct “no.” Even mild rebukes can devastate those who receive them. In contrast, Ahok is brash and outspoken, never afraid to wade into controversy or trade a jab with a fellow politician. When Jaya Suprana, a prominent and elder Chinese-Indonesian, wrote an open letter to Ahok asking him to act more courteously, Ahok responded by saying Suprana had a “second-class brain.” If Jokowi is “Indonesia’s Obama,” as he is sometimes called for his eloquence and laid-back demeanor, then Ahok is Indonesia’s Rahm Emanuel.

And finally, in a city where 85 percent of the electorate is Muslim and in the most populous Muslim country on earth, Ahok is a Christian. If he won the election, he would be the first non-Muslim ever chosen by voters for the job.

This blasphemy trial threatened to derail everything he’d worked for. Facing up to two years in prison, he pleaded with the five men in black and fuscia robes looking down at him. “I am very sad that I was accused of insulting Islam,” he told them, “because the accusation is just like saying I despise my adoptive parents and adoptive brothers, whom I love.”

Ahok had been well ahead in the polls all through 2016. He had continued Jokowi’s platform, a list of progressive-populist initiatives that aimed to improve quality of life in the crowded, chaotic city by developing infrastructure and public housing. Ahok added some flair by publicly shaming officials he considered incompetent or corrupt. Neither of his challengers, Anies Baswedan and Agus Yudhoyono, posed a real challenge.

The only energetic opposition to Ahok came from hardline Islamist groups, such as the violent Islamic Defenders Front and their ultra-conservative leader Muhammad Rizieq Shihab.  And even then, the demonstrations remained small, attracting only fringe elements.

Protesters gathered again in November, this time drawing 150,000 into the streets of Jakarta.

In September 2016, Ahok tried to answer the protests. Addressing a group of fisherman, Ahok asserted that his opponents were misrepresenting verse 51 from the fifth sura of the Quran, which warns Muslims against taking Christians and Jews as allies in times of war. Islamists had been using this passage to claim that the Quran forbade good Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim. Ahok, in his typical blunt and off-the-cuff style, then added, “That’s your right, so if you can’t choose me because you are afraid you will go to hell, that’s OK.” Then someone posted online a video of the speech, edited to make it appear Ahok had said it was the Quran that was mistaken.

While this may seem milquetoast material for a scandal (remember, Javanese are very mild-mannered) especially compared to some of Ahok’s previous comments (like the time he compared headscarves to napkins), this statement was kindling for the Islamists’ propaganda to ignite a conflagration that is still razing Indonesian politics. An unlikely alliance between religious extremists and the political establishment quickly coalesced and began calling for Ahok’s arrest on blasphemy charges.

In early November, they organized a rally that saw roughly 150,000 Indonesians march through the streets, calling for Ahok’s imprisonment. It ended in violence and looting. Ahok was still popular, but the campaign was doing damage: According to one poll, over 70 percent of Jakartans approved of the job Ahok had done during his two years as governor, but half said they would not vote for him because they believed he had insulted Islam.

Ahok continued campaigning even as police questioned him about his statements on the Quran. At the time, most of the public viewed the investigation as a fig-leaf to the Islamists, but to the Islamists it was an opening. On Dec. 2, the Islamists organized a march that drew 500,000 to 600,000 demonstrators. In response to the public outcry, the attorney general of Indonesia brought charges of blasphemy against Ahok, alleging he disturbed the peace and used the Quran to fool the electorate. What’s more, prosecutors expedited the hearing, leaving Ahok’s legal team less than three weeks to read the more than 800-page dossier.

Prior to the trial, Ahok had been polling at 52 percent, which would have been enough to win the governorship in the first round of elections in February. As it worked out, Ahok won 43 percent of the electorate, enough for first place, but not enough to avoid a runoff.  

In the second round of elections in April, Ahok lost to Baswedan, a former minister of education and political moderate who had begun touring mosques and meeting with Islamist leaders after Ahok’s legal troubles began.

Then in May, two weeks after his loss at the ballot box, a five-judge panel found Ahok “legally and convincingly guilty of committing the criminal act of blasphemy.” The court took the extraordinary step of sentencing Ahok to two years in prison when the prosecution had only asked for probation.

Furthermore, the court cited the Islamist leader Rizieq in its decision and seemed to agree with his interpretation that the Quran forbids Muslims from voting for non-Muslims. Indonesian legal experts were surprised that Rizieq had even been allowed to testify. His recognition by the court as a legitimate Islamic theologian shows how much ground the hardline Islamists have gained and how far the court was willing to go to appease the mob.

Ahok was far from a perfect candidate. He evicted hundreds if not thousands of the poorest Jakartans to make way for his infrastructure projects. His rough-and-tumble style of politics meant there were more than a few cheers on the day of his conviction. But Ahok’s electoral loss and subsequent imprisonment represent a potential watershed for Indonesia, a return to identity politics in a country with a thousand identities.  

Until the early 1900s, there was no such thing as Indonesia. Each of the islands in the archipelago had and continues to have a history, culture and language distinct to those of its neighbors. The only thing that united them was the Dutch colonial structure and their collective hatred for it.

After the Dutch briefly tried to reassert their colonial domain in the wake of World War II, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, the founding fathers of Indonesia, worked hard to create a sense of Indonesia-ness. They proposed Malay as the national language precisely because it was a trade language that was spoken by some people on each island but was not a majority language anywhere. They created a national philosophy, the “Five Guiding Principles,” known as Pancasila, that attempted to be all things to all people. They said “Divinity is the ultimate unity” to court Islamists to their side, but also added a principle stressing the importance of achieving “socialism (later reformulated as “social justice”) for all Indonesian people” to attract the Indonesian Communist Party. The Indonesian government has tried to be accommodating to local customs, making special statutory exceptions for central Java’s Yogyakarta region, where the pre-colonial monarchy has been allowed to continue its rule, and for Aceh, allowing the perennially troublesome region to operate a limited type of Sharia. Even the national motto is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” Unity in Diversity.

Pluralism is one of Indonesia’s strengths, but it also means existing in a perpetual state of compromise. For the early part of its history, the country was united by Sukarno’s sheer charisma and then by Suharto’s iron fist. Yet despite these leaders and the tolerant nature cultivated by most Indonesian politicians and religious leaders, the divides persist and can occasionally bubble to the surface, as the 1965 and 1966 anti-communist purges (recently illuminated by the excellent documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) or the anti-Chinese riots of 1998 demonstrate.

These differences are again being strained by the rising tide of Wahhabism and other ultra-conservative Islamic sects. Islam came to the Indonesian archipelago in the late 13th century, where it mixed with Hinduism, Buddhism and local animist religions to create a unique syncretic faith. Historically, Indonesian Muslims and their institutions, such as the Nahdlatul Ulama, have promoted tolerance and pluralism. But in the past 20 years, Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative sect that allied and enmeshed itself with Saudi Arabia’s royal family, has been pouring money into universities, madrassas and other organizations across Indonesia, leading to the creation of a conservative and militant Islamic faith that is new to much of the nation.

This has presented new fault lines for Indonesian politicians to exploit. The byzantine nature of Indonesian politics is almost indecipherable until you realize that, more than money and fame, what determines political power are ghosts. Decades after their fall from power, Sukarno and Suharto still reign through their family and protégés. Ahok, being the consummate outsider, could not trace a link to either of them. In fact, his only connection to any “establishment” is through Jokowi, who is himself a political outsider and, despite being president of Indonesia, a junior member of his party. He must still deal with his party’s head, Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and the daughter of Sukarno.

Many view Ahok’s trial as being less religiously than politically motivated, an attempt to remove a key Jokowi ally and to weaken his stature nationally. Basdewan, who bested Ahok in the election, had been an education minister under Jokowi but was removed in July 2016 over corruption allegations. He was supported in the race by Prabowo Subianto, the former husband of Suharto’s second daughter, who lost the tightly contested 2014 presidential election to Jokowi.

The third candidate, Yudhoyono, urged all his supporters to vote for Basdewan. Yudhoyono’s father is Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another former president and a confidant of Suharto. Many see the elder Yudhoyono’s fingerprints on the entire election: Yudhoyono had tolerated a creeping Islamization during his time as president, and under his tenure convictions for blasphemy skyrocketed.

While House of Cards political machinations and long patronage lines are business as usual in Indonesia, the use of ethnic and religious appeals by establishment politicians to disparage and eliminate an opponent is wholly new and unsettling. Ahok, who would have never been accepted for all the reasons listed above, lost his last semblance of institutional support when left his political party and started an independent party for his gubernatorial campaign. Both he and Jokowi have remained outside the Sukarno-Suharto political machines, making them a threat. To undermine these outsiders, the party bosses turned to intolerance and ultra-conservative dogma. In this election, it proved a successful strategy, but that bell cannot be unrung.

In 2014, Indonesia elected its version of Obama: It may now be on a course to create its version of Trump.

And yet, this may not be the end of Ahok. For the moment, he has decided to drop his appeal to the court because, as his defense lawyer stated, the process is “too politicized” for justice to be served. In a statement read by his wife, Ahok addressed his supporters, saying, “I know this is not easy for you to accept this reality, let alone me, but I have learned to forgive and accept all this for the sake of our people and nation.”

His time served in prison may represent an incubation period from which a cannier, less abrasive politician emerges. His plight has already triggered an outpouring of support, with candlelight vigils across the country and in cities as far off as Amsterdam and Toronto. In the wake of the U.N. condemning Ahok’s conviction, the attorney general filed an appeal—on behalf of the defendant against the court’s prison sentence.

Meanwhile, all eyes turn toward the important regional elections in 2018 in preparation for the presidential election in 2019. Indonesia has been the example of a moderate, Islamic democracy for the past 20 years, and they are rightly proud of it. But as liberal democratic principles are in retreat across the globe, it will take special attention to keep “Unity in Diversity” from splintering into outright division.

Richie Koch
Richie Koch is a writer based in Bamako, Mali. He has a Master’s in International Political Economy and Development from Fordham and has lived in Luxemburg, France and Indonesia.