Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is up for re-election in two weeks, but he is also on trial for blasphemy in a case filed by conservative Muslim groups.
The outcry against the Chinese and Christian governor, also known as Ahok, is the latest manifestation of longstanding tensions between religion and nation, and the sway that faith holds on politics in Indonesia, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) dean Joseph Liow said at a conference yesterday.
Professor Liow traced this dynamic back to the 1970s, when Christians were seen to be on the rise politically with endorsement from then President Suharto. This triggered resistance from Muslims, who believed their rights as a dominant group were being undermined.
As a result, while Indonesia transformed politically after Mr Suharto's fall in 1998, "democratisation and political liberalisation also possessed a dark side that found expression in the rise of sectarianism and religious intolerance", he said.
In his keynote lecture at the symposium, organised by RSIS' Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, Prof Liow outlined how religion and concepts of nationhood are intricately linked in South-east Asian nations like Myanmar and Thailand, where the Buddhist Sangha - or clergy - underpin the foundations of the state. He noted that majoritarian prejudices in the region's societies have seen segments of Muslim-minority populations in southern Thailand and southern Philippines employ religious discourse to frame grievances over land loss and marginalisation.
In Indonesia, political transition was seen by some as offering opportunities to rectify the perceived imbalance between the interests of Muslims and Christians.
Meanwhile, Malaysia has seen an alarming escalation of tension as the Muslim-dominated government has allowed exclusivist views by the majority on religious issues to go unchecked, noted Prof Liow.
Malay-Muslim ethno-nationalists have seized the levers of state power to impose their conception of nationhood on minorities, making the task of constructing a national identity especially onerous, he added.
These obstacles, said Prof Liow, have led one prominent scholar to the conclusion that "the country cannot claim with any confidence to be in possession of a 'national identity' ".
"Religious nationalists have recognised the value of religious identity and history, and seek to harness their emotive power on the basis that their conception of nationhood needs to be defended and perpetuated," he added.
Professor Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the University of Notre Dame's Keough School of Global Affairs, began his opening address at the two-day symposium by exploring the various factors that may motivate violence commonly associated with religious groups.
Some acts of terror, he noted, cannot be divorced from the influence of religion, having been inspired by a religiously informed way of reading the world. But they are not always purely religious and are often infected by mundane motivations, such as sovereignty or territory, he stressed.
"I think that basic analysis may seem straightforward but it is often violated in practice by those who speak about religion and refuse to recognise the genuinely religious elements, even in terrorist violence. Or those who suggest, on the other hand, that religion itself is nothing but extreme violence (and) the will to dominate," he added.
Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh