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After a hotly contested and highly divisive campaign, former minister Anies Baswedan has apparently won the contest for the governorship of Jakarta. He beat the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known widely as Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent. Ahok, according to Indonesian press reports was an effective and clean administrator and was a shoe-in to be re-elected until he ran afoul of religious groups which accused him of blasphemy.

I don’t know either man personally so I cannot tell who is better qualified to be governor but then this election wasn’t about choosing the better candidate but about race and religion. Jakarta’s citizens were encouraged by religious groups to vote not on the basis of programmes and policies that would best serve their city or the track records of the respective candidates but on narrow sectarian grounds.

Bigotry & blasphemy

For religious groups the key issue was whether someone of Chinese descent, and a Christian to boot, should be governor of Muslim Indonesia’s largest and most important city. Unsurprisingly, it resulted in what the Jakarta Post called, “the dirtiest, most polarizing and most divisive the nation has ever seen.”

Malaysians are not unfamiliar with such bigotry; the head of a religious party here publicly declared, not too long ago, that minorities ought not to be allowed to hold the highest political offices in the land.

Those who conspired to taint Ahock with blasphemy and manipulate racial and religious sentiment against him will no doubt be thrilled by their success, but for Indonesia it represents a wrong turn that will bring with it profound consequences.

Decades from now, Indonesians will come to see this singular event as the beginning of the end of Indonesia’s nascent democracy and its commitment to pluralism and religious tolerance.

The politics of intolerance

Extremist religious leaders who are in the ascendency in Indonesia have now arrogated to themselves the right to determine who is suitable for high office. It will not end there. This week they made an example of a Chinese Christian; the next time around it will be against a Javanese or Sumatran or some other fellow citizen who in their opinion is not religious enough or who does not share their particular religious bent.

This is how nations fracture and fall apart.

Indonesian politicians will soon have to play religious games or be branded apostates, deviants or worse. It will be obligatory to make a show of their own religious convictions, offer carte blanche to religious officials to expand their reach into every segment of society and sanction an ever expanding religious bureaucracy.

And if some of Indonesia’s neighbours are anything to go by, hypocrisy and irreverence will increase while integrity, accountability and fealty to truth will decrease. The trappings of religiosity will be used by unscrupulous politicians and their cronies as cover to loot and abuse their power and live a lifestyle that is in stark contrast to the austere spirituality they force upon the rest of the country.

The religious crowd, for their part, will gladly look the other way and pretend not to notice the chicanery of their political partners in exchange for more power, influence and financial support to foist upon the nation their particular version of godliness.

The outcome is a governance model that is undemocratic, unaccountable and unrestrained.

The politics of intimidation

In the meantime, Ahok, charged with blasphemy for simply reminding his fellow citizens that their religion did not forbid voting for people of other faiths as alleged by some of their religious leaders, will likely be found guilty and be put on probation. One of the lawyers involved was quoted as saying that “if within two years, Ahok doesn’t commit any new criminal acts, like corruption, stealing… he will be free.”

That this should be said about a man who, by all counts, is one of the few “clean” men in a country as notorious as ours for corruption speaks volumes of where Indonesia is heading.

Blasphemy laws are quickly becoming the weapon of choice in many countries to intimidate, silence or sideline dissenting views and opinions. Unsurprisingly, some of our own religious fanatics are eager to see it introduced here.

The absence of blasphemy laws have not, however, prevented some of these religious leaders from demonizing anyone who opposes them. They seem to think that they alone have the right to determine what is best for society and readily equate any disagreement as an insult to the religion itself. They say the most outrageous things about others but if others respond they are condemned as enemies of the faith. Religious leaders such as these are not interested in rational discourse but in intimidating society into silence and acquiescence.

From democracy to demagoguery

Indonesia’s leaders had an opportunity to stand up for diversity and tolerance, for the high ideals that they have always insisted are intrinsic to their faith, and for the democratic principles that they claim modern Indonesia stands for, but they chose to remain silent. The miasma of their silence will linger long after they are gone.

Sadly, Indonesia is not alone. Increasingly, in many parts of the world, elections are descending into demagoguery, becoming simply an occasion to give expression to the worst instincts of men instead of a reaffirmation of the noble values that their nations were founded upon.

One has only to look at the so-called “advanced” democracies to wonder if we are witnessing the death throes of democracy itself.

As fate would have it, US Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in Jakarta the day the election results were announced. Ignoring rising religious extremism in Indonesia, he praised Indonesia’s democracy and moderation. “Our two countries,” he said, “share many common values including freedom, the rule of law, human rights and religious diversity.”

It is not the first time that such tribute has been lavished upon a nation headed in the wrong direction.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 23nd April 2017