On May 9, 2017, the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was convicted of blasphemy in the North Jakarta District Court and sentenced to two years in prison. The conviction was arguably the most blatant use of Indonesia’s blasphemy laws for political ends ever. Ahok’s fall from the governor’s office to the prison cell shows with chilling clarity the effectiveness of the “hate spin” campaign to obstruct the Christian and ethnic Chinese governor’s reelection. For a prominent politician and close ally of Indonesia’s President to be found guilty of “publically expressing feelings insulting or defaming a religion practiced in Indonesia” was unprecedented. But other aspects of this remarkable case followed the usual pattern of blasphemy trials since the early 2000s, when hardline Islamist groups began to put their faith in the courts to protect Islam from defamation by non-mainstream Muslims and religious minorities.

Ahok’s troubles began after an official visit to the Thousand Islands regency on September 27, 2016, where he gave a campaign speech to an audience of fishermen, government officials, and the general public. Toward the end of his long speech on fisheries, the Christian governor made a passing reference to a Quranic verse that went along these lines: “In your inner hearts, ladies and gentlemen, you may feel that you cannot vote for me, because [you have been] lied to by the use of Surah al Maidah, Verse 51. So, if you cannot vote for me because you are afraid of going to hell, you don’t need to feel uneasy, because you are being fooled. It’s alright. This is your personal calling. This program will continue regardless [of my reelection].” The audience hardly seemed upset by these remarks. Indeed, YouTube videos reveal that many chuckled in response to these off-hand remarks pointing out that some religious leaders (ulama) invoke Verse 51 of the Quran to warn Muslims against having Jewish or Christian leaders. As people were called to testify, few, if any, had noticed that blasphemy had been committed, but many admitted that they hardly paid attention to the speech, or only cared about the fish program.

What I want to address here is the wide gap between the relative indifference, even boredom, those attending the speech reported, and the massive outcry and vilification of the governor that was to follow. This gap speaks directly to the problems that arise in a hyper plural nation-state like Indonesia, when legal provisions to protect “religion” from defamation are being hijacked by particular interest groups. The problem is not simply that it is unclear what standards the state will invoke to determine when the offense is sufficiently severe and falls outside the scope of permissible speech, or that such legal provisions in Indonesia, as elsewhere, tend to privilege the sensitivities of the majority religious group. Rather, the problem is that some of the most vigorous defenders of Indonesia’s controversial Blasphemy Law have become highly adept at displaying righteous indignation in response to perceived insults. As the definition of blasphemy in the Criminal Code is very broad, a wide range of utterances and actions can qualify “to misuse” or “defame” one of the six state-sanctioned religions (agama): Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism.1 Article 156A that provides the basis for such prosecutions states that: “Any person who intentionally and in public expresses sentiments or carries out acts that (a) are principally of a nature of enmity toward, misuse of or defame (penodaan) of a religion adhered to in Indonesia (b) are intended to stop a person believing in any religion that is based on the Almighty God will be sentenced to imprisonment for up to 5 years.”

In Putting Faith in Hate, Richard Moon notes that “[T]he restriction of religious criticism (and more particularly, the distinction between acceptable/temperate and unacceptable/intemperate criticism) is sometimes said to depend on whether the criticism is likely to lead to a breach of the peace—to disrupt public order.” While the protection of public order appears to offer a more objective standard for the restriction of such speech than the protection of religious sensibilities, Moon points out that “if speech can be restricted whenever violence occurs (or is threatened), there will be an incentive for opponents of the speech to respond violently.” These observations are highly relevant in Indonesia, where Islamist groups are ardent defenders of the Blasphemy Law, which has become a tool to stifle religious criticism and police religious boundaries. The anti-Ahok campaign is a textbook example of what Cherian George calls “hate spin,” a double-sided technique that combines hate speech (incitement through vilification) with manufactured offense-taking. When such “hate spin” campaigns work, we have a situation where those performing indignation and threatening violence are reinforced by legal ammunition, while speakers are penalized for outcomes they did not intend, and over which they have no control.

The group that is most adept in the game of manufactured indignation is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline mass-movement headquartered in Jakarta, whose members stage rallies and take violent action when “Muslim interests” are threatened. Early in his tenure as governor, Ahok requested that FPI be banned after a series of violent incidents in Jakarta. Although unsuccessful, the attempt suggested that the thuggish group was no longer untouchable. As FPI had been opposed to having a Chinese Christian governor of the nation’s capital in the first place, it was no surprise that they were prepared to use almost any means to get him convicted. Once Ahok was accused of insulting the Quran, it did not take long before a nationwide anti-Ahok campaign, led by a coalition of hardline groups, gained momentum. A rally in Jakarta in November that turned violent drew 100,000 protesters, while the National Police Spokesman estimated that 200,000 protesters gathered around the National Monument in early December. These were the largest protests since 1998, when democracy activists called for the resignation of General Suharto, whose authoritarian New Order regime finally collapsed after thirty-two years in power.

How could things escalate so quickly? Had it not been for the dubious thirty-second amateur video that went viral after being uploaded on YouTube two weeks after the fateful speech, it is unlikely that Ahok would have lost the reelection for governor in April 2017 and been imprisoned for blasphemy. There was much controversy about the video, as the university lecturer who uploaded the clip on his Facebook account appeared to have edited the soundtrack. This was hugely significant as it changed Ahok’s statement from “Verse 51 was used to mislead” to “Verse 51 being misleading.” To say that some Muslim leaders (ulama) mislead people is one thing; to criticize the holy Quran itself is entirely different. Just a week after Ahok was named a suspect for blasphemy, the Jakarta Metro Police charged the uploader for inciting religious or ethnic hatred, under the Electronic Information and Transactions Law. But the five judges in Ahok’s trial chose to ignore claims that the clip had been doctored. When the presiding judge, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, announced the verdict in May 2017, he said that the hate-speech case against the uploader was not relevant to Ahok’s blasphemy case and emphasized that, “The defendant feels no remorse. His action caused unrest, ‘hurt’ Islam and divided Muslims and other groups.” Later, in November 2017, when the Bandung District Court found the uploader guilty of hate-speech, and for unlawfully editing a video owned by another party, Ahok’s lawyers complained that the eighteen-month sentence came too late and was too light.

Videotapes, genuine and fake, allowed protesters around the country to rally around the injury done to Muslim feelings by the governor’s allegedly disrespectful comments. Rather than calming tensions, the semi-official Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI) reinforced the voices of those who seemed most offended. Besides issuing a warning telling the governor not to make insulting statements, the Council released a “religious opinion and stance” on October 11, 2016 affirming that: “Verse 51 contains an explicit prohibition on having Jews and Christians as leaders” and that “ulama must therefore convey to Muslims that the verse means that voting for a Muslim leader is obligatory.” It went on to note: “Saying that the verse is a lie is haram, and is defamation of the Quran”; “Saying that ulama were deceitful by conveying the argument that the verse contains a prohibition on non-Muslim becoming leaders is an insult to the ulama and the Islam community.” Finally, the MUI urged law enforcers to “act firmly against every person who offends the Quran and Islamic teachings, using existing laws.” Within weeks, a coalition calling itself the National Movement to Defend the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) organized mass rallies.

Indonesia is not a religious state. This means, among other things, that judges in criminal trials are not bound to defer to decisions or religious opinions (fatwa) issued by the Council of Indonesian Ulama or any other fatwa-giving body. But the judges on the North Jakarta District Court largely accepted the MUI’s particular theological reading of the al Maidah Verse and endorsed the council’s restrictive views on criticism of clerical authority. In so doing the court followed a pattern seen in similar trials where courts practice a form of “religious deference,” elevating the MUI’s theological views as “official” religion. In fact, the court disregarded the prosecutors’ decision to pursue charges only under the lesser offence of hate speech (Article 156) and to seek only a two-year suspended sentence. Instead, the court opted to use Article 156A of the Criminal Code, which provides the basis for prosecutions for blasphemy, handing down a harder sentence.        

Although the court’s behavior is problematic from the point of view of those who would like to see the state as a neutral arbiter among religious communities, or within religious groups, the Indonesian state is deeply involved in the policing of religious boundaries, guiding its citizens toward proper religious conduct. Hence the judges may well have seen the sentence as a means to protect “religion” and foster “religious harmony.” They may also have felt personally intimidated by the protesters who thronged the heavily guarded court sessions. That three of the judges were promoted by the Supreme Court just days after the ruling could be seen as a further victory of the coalition that launched a remarkably effective “hate spin” campaign. Far from curbing tensions, the case has polarized Indonesians, making religious and ethnic minorities fearful that the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) remains a distant dream.


  1. For a good discussion of the Blasphemy Law, sometimes known as the Defamation of Religion Law, see Zainal Abidin Bagir’s chapter on “The Politics and Law of Religious Governance,” in the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Indonesia.