Jokowi meets clerics amid simmering sectarian tensions

Meeting follows claims that hardline Islamic groups plan rallies in plot to oust President

The meeting was seen by analysts as an attempt by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to gain support from 20 Muslim clerics to prevent simmering sectarianism that has gripped Jakarta in recent months from spreading elsewhere. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA • Indonesian President Joko Widodo has met Muslim clerics from across the country at the state palace, amid allegations that hardline Islamic groups are planning large rallies in five cities as part of a plot to overthrow him.

The meeting on Tuesday took place just days after police arrested five alleged instigators of the latest sectarian rally against the capital's Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, last Friday.

The five suspects planned to hold large rallies in five major cities some time between April 20, a day after the Jakarta election runoff, and the beginning of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan on May 26, said Jakarta police spokesman Prabowo Argo Yuwono on Tuesday.

Tuesday's meeting was seen by analysts as an attempt by Mr Joko, popularly known as Jokowi, to gain support from 20 Muslim clerics to prevent simmering sectarianism that has gripped Jakarta in recent months from spreading elsewhere.

Said Mr Joko: "We rely on ulamas to maintain calmness and to cool down the situation in cities and regencies of the country so that we always maintain a peaceful state of affairs."

The Jakarta election has become a lighting rod for Islamic hardliners who hold increasing sway in the traditionally pluralistic society.

Basuki, who is both Christian and ethnic Chinese, is on trial this week for blasphemy, in a case that has divided Jakarta's Muslim community.

However, he won the first round of the election in February and easily beat the most conservative candidates in a sign that many still value secular leadership.

Mr Joko and Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, have sided with Basuki against hardliners supporting his prosecution for blasphemy.

Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, who sat in on Tuesday's meeting, said the clerics had not specifically discussed sectarian issues plaguing the Jakarta election, as they were focused on maintaining harmony across the country.

He said: "They told the President that religious harmony should not only be established through the implementation of law and human rights principles, but what is the most important thing is that we use empathy to build religious harmony."

Friday's arrests marked the second time police had linked a sectarian rally in Jakarta to a plot to oust Mr Joko. Last December, police arrested a number of people accused of trying to use a rally as a means to depose the President.

The five men arrested last Friday include Muhammad Al Khaththath, secretary-general of hardline group Forum of Muslims.

The other four suspects, identified as Diko Nugraha, Andre, Irwansyah and Zainuddin Arsyad, are believed to be senior members of Muslim organisations.

The five men allegedly plotted to occupy the House of Representatives, by ramming trucks into the back gate of Parliament and taking over the complex. Police said the suspects mapped seven entrances and a network of underground sewers that could be used by a mob to enter the House and subdue it.


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2017, with the headline Jokowi meets clerics amid simmering sectarian tensions. Subscribe