A hero emerges amid fear and silence of Indonesia's blasphemy saga: The Jakarta Post Columnist

Indonesian Muslims protest in Jakarta to demand that Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama be jailed for allegedly blaspheming Islam.
Indonesian Muslims protest in Jakarta to demand that Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama be jailed for allegedly blaspheming Islam.PHOTO: AFP

By Syafiq Hasyim

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The ongoing Jakarta gubernatorial election race has made international headlines for one thing: the massive and systematic use of religion to win votes.

This has happened in previous elections in the world's largest Muslim-majority country. But never before have we seen the Blasphemy Law used to charge one candidate, in this case the incumbent Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, with insulting Islam.

Almost all the so-called moderate Muslim organisations support the accusation that Ahok insulted Islam by claiming a verse from the Koran had been used by his rivals to deceive voters and justify the assertion that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims.

This support is evident in the ongoing trial, where witnesses called by state prosecutors are mostly religious leaders of the Muhammadiyah, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) - the latter being the world's largest independent Muslim organisation.

Meanwhile the silence of many progressive Muslim scholars and activists is mostly due to fear of being perceived as defenders of Ahok, who is of Chinese descent and a Christian.

Only a tiny minority is bravely expressing an opinion that Ahok has not blasphemed religion.

Most prominent among them is Ahmad Ishomuddin, a young cleric who shocked Indonesians with his courage as an expert witness in the Ahok trial on March 21. Amid the deafening silence of progressive Muslim scholars and activists, he stood up and spoke for truth in the face of fearsome intimidation.

He was dismissed shortly afterwards from his position on the Ulema Council - although the council insists it fired him because he was inactive.

Ishomuddin's presence in court showed that the voice of progressive Muslims, although very soft, still exists.

His stance is rare among members of an Islamic establishment grown comfortable with privilege and power.

Ishomuddin has taking a different position by upholding justice and freedom as being the core of Islam.

Ishomuddin is a young cleric born who hails from outside the NU establishment. He grew up in a religious family and his parents sent him to Islamic boarding schools on Java.

Not being the son of a kyai (great cleric) on Java, he does not carry the honorific "gus".

Instead of privilege, he is graced with natural intelligence, as is evident in his mastering of the various disciplines of Islam.

His mastery and astute application of religious edict to modern matters saw him named as a member of the NU's sharia body, its highest authority.

Ishomuddin's courage reflects the genuine Islamic movement in dealing with the intimidating issue of blasphemy. He defended Ahok not by referring to religious freedom and human rights, but solely founding his argument on classical sources of Islam, such as the Koran and Islamic legal theory.

Importantly, his defence shows Islam can be used to support religious freedom and human rights.

Ahok's blasphemy case has further exposed Indonesia's progressive Islamic movement as fragile and weak in its ability to spread its message to a general audience.

Those observers and media who had previously declared the "success" of the struggle of progressive Islam in Indonesia have been shaken by the Ahok case.

We have many great and diligent Muslim scholars and activists, but their stance on this case - a crucial test of Indonesian pluralism and tolerance - has been utterly disappointing.

The progressive Islamic movement here needs the support of brilliant Muslim scholars if it is to survive. And that support must come in the form of fearless words and action, not merely silent thought.

This does not mean we should neglect the risk involved. But in a democratic country such as ours, that risk should be the responsibility of the state, not of individuals.

Our responsibility is to break the silence and the only way is through courage.

The writer is director of the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism in Jakarta.