From the moment Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who goes by the Hakka Chinese nickname Ahok, stepped into Jakarta politics in 2012, he was bound to be a polarizing figure.
Sharp-tongued, of Chinese descent, and a practicing Protestant in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Ahok did not fit the profile of a typical Indonesian politician. At first, improbably, these differences seemed to work for him. But in 2017, they collided with the country’s increasingly powerful hard-line Islamist groups. After a misstep during a campaign speech, Ahok was convicted of blasphemy, lost an election bid, and went to prison — becoming the most prominent symbol of Indonesia’s beleaguered ethnic and religious pluralism.
Looking back today, it’s remarkable that Ahok — a double minority and sometimes-impulsive public speaker (“If only there were some magic tape to put [over his mouth],” former Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri reportedly said last year) — got as far as he did. In less than three years, he went from legislator representing East Belitung, a small district, to governor of Jakarta, the capital.
Ahok first gained national attention as the deputy of Jakarta’s previous governor, Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), a former small-business man from humble stock who would go on to become Indonesia’s president in 2014. In Jakarta, Jokowi and Ahok cultivated a complimentary dynamic: Ahok’s irreverence and technocratic sensibility counterbalanced Jokowi’s inspirational populism. When Jokowi stepped down to run for president, Ahok became acting governor, and assumed the full office after Jokowi won the election.
He used the post to continue fighting corruption, expand access to health care and other social services, dredge the megacity’s stopped-up canals, and improve public transportation, a desperately needed administrative cleanup campaign that helped earn him high approval ratings.
“What Ahok did for the capital in the past three years is a tough act to follow,” the editorial board of the Jakarta Post wrote in October. “In such a short span of time, Ahok greatly expanded the Jakarta Smart Card program” — a system of allowances that helps low-income Jakartans pay for education and health care — “greatly improved sanitation for a majority of Jakartans” and “ordered the opening of more parks, children’s playgrounds and libraries.”
But even as his accomplishments, and habit of berating incompetent bureaucrats, drew widespread praise, it also made him enemies, especially among the urban poor forcibly relocated to make way for land reclamation and development projects.
But it was an offhand comment during a September 2016 campaign speech that would ultimately prove his undoing.
Addressing a group of fishermen in Jakarta’s Thousand Islands, off the city’s northern coast, Ahok made a seemingly lighthearted reference to a Quran verse that some Islamists interpret as a prohibition against Muslims voting for non-Muslim leaders. The point was to assure his audience that they needn’t worry about voting for a self-declared pork-eating infidel like him.
It wasn’t even the first time he had invoked Islamic scripture to support the case for tolerance. “There are certain groups provoking other people to hate me because of my religion. This is what happens if you do not understand and uphold the holy Quran,” he told a group of Muslims at City Hall in 2014.
The Thousand Islands comment, however, rapidly circulated online and set off a cascade of protests. Hard-line Islamist groups flooded Jakarta calling for Ahok’s imprisonment (or execution). More than two months after the original remark, state prosecutors, appearing to bow to public pressure, charged him with blasphemy under an infrequently enforced law.
But the controversy had as much to do with politics as religion. Ahok’s main opponent in the election, Anies Baswedan — who, though a Muslim, had not been a close ally of hard-line groups — seized on the moment to court the Islamist vote. As the case went to trial in December 2016, the country held its breath, its very identity as a pluralistic state in question. “My brother basically is the test case of this — whether intolerance is going to win or tolerance will win,” explained Fifi Lety Indra, Ahok’s sister and the head of his legal team.
The first ominous sign came this April: Ahok, still on trial, lost the election to Baswedan despite having enjoyed a lead in earlier polls. Then, in May, the North Jakarta District Court found Ahok guilty — the highest-profile blasphemy conviction in the nation’s history — and sentenced him to two years in prison.
Ahok’s supporters held vigils across the country and around the world, and the United Nations and Human Rights Watch condemned the ruling. “Instead of speaking out against hate speech by the leaders of the protests, the Indonesian authorities appear to have appeased incitement to religious intolerance and discrimination,” three U.N. experts said in a joint statement in May.
Still, some Indonesians hope that Ahok’s prosecution could serve a constructive end — by galvanizing the country’s sometimes-complacent moderate majority.
“His imprisonment was a loud wakeup call for many Indonesians,” says Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, who visited Ahok in jail in November. “There is a serious problem of religious freedom and discrimination against minorities in Indonesia” — and by losing his own freedom, Ahok just might encourage others to steer the country back to the middle ground.
Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Ahok’s grandfather was a tin miner from Guangzhou, China.