The Straits Times says

Peril of letting hardliners call the shots

The jailing of outgoing Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy was widely received with dismay, an expected reaction given the widespread portrayal of his long-drawn trial as a test of tolerance for Indonesia. The lead judge was being disingenuous, of course, in claiming the trial was a purely criminal matter. The unrelenting political pressure to imprison the minority Christian governor was plain for all to see; and the exploitation of race and religion during the campaigning for Jakarta's governorship has been widely criticised. The blasphemy law itself has drawn the attention of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is calling for a review of legislation that could be used as an instrument of persecution. Blasphemy is deemed a crime in Indonesia, carrying imprisonment of up to five years.

Whatever the views held about the case, it is proper for people to respect due process (the trial and the likely appeal), as called for by Indonesian President Joko Widodo after the verdict was delivered. Laws and legal institutions serve as a bulwark against the violent resolution of disputes, the machinations of powerful groups or oligarchs, or the abuse of executive power. In saying the government would not intervene in the legal proceedings, Mr Joko emphasised the primacy of the rule of law. However, should actions by groups threaten law and order, it would be incumbent on the state to take decisive action. How far the government should go to curb unrest is made complex when religion is mixed with politics.

In Jakarta, Islamists had led protesters from a mosque to the streets, setting vehicles on fire and throwing bottles at police outside the presidential palace. Giving hardliners free rein would amount to ceding some power to them. On the other hand, forcefully dispersing unruly crowds could alienate Muslim voters, especially if mishaps arise - a consideration which cannot be ignored with the presidential election due in 2019. The nation was placed in such a bind during the Jakarta election because religious hardliners were allowed to run riot and undermine pluralism.

Apart from their desire to stir crowds, these groups took to the streets because their access to formal power has been reduced in recent years. In response, they have been steadily working the ground, and are said to be behind a conservative religious tilt in some areas. For example, civic textbooks for senior high school students lack any mention of multiculturalism, noted Maarif Institute, an Indonesian civil society group. Instead, some books have a chapter on the setting up of an Islamic state. The fear among moderates is that such rising intolerance could undermine economic growth and social development. Political elites consorting with hardliners in order to gain power should not underrate this grave danger.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2017, with the headline 'Peril of letting hardliners call the shots'. Print Edition | Subscribe