ELIZABETH SOELISTIO WRITES – The governor of Jakarta has once again caught the attention of the Indonesian media and public with his feisty and straightforward personality.

 

In late October, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama encouraged Thousand Island residents to vote for whomever leader they choose, regardless of their religious affiliation. He said people have been lied to by religious leaders who bastardize verses from the Quran to justify boycotting non-Muslim candidates.

 

“You do not need to feel uneasy if you cannot vote for me because you are afraid of being condemned to hell,” Ahok said. “It is alright.”

 

But instead of rallying voters behind him as his official campaign for re-election kicks off, Ahok’s comments sparked controversy amongst the country’s Muslim population.

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Elected in 2012, Ahok is Jakarta’s first ethnic Chinese and non-Muslim governor. Since the start of his political career in 2003, most of his Muslim opponents have used Quran verses to attack him. One of these verses, Al-Maidah 51, tells Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as their allies or leaders and is often used to discourage the Muslim population from voting for non-Muslim candidates, such as Ahok.

 

Many religious radical groups have taken Ahok’s speech as religious defamation against Islam. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) have filed a report with the National Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (Bareskrim) asking for an investigation.

 

It’s not as if things were going great before his late-October speech. Earlier in the month, thousands of protesters in other big Indonesian cities marched against Ahok following a rally at Jakarta City Hall. They demanded Ahok serve at least four years of jail time or face execution, as (they say) is called for in Islamic teaching.

 

Though Ahok apologized to those offended by his recent statements, he denies accusations that he is anti-Muslim and says such claims are an attempt to spread hatred. When defending the controversial line in his Thousand Island speech, Ahok said, “There is nothing wrong with the verses in the Quran. It was not the context [of my speech].”

 

The nation’s biggest Islamic organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), have stressed that there is nothing wrong with Muslims voting for a non-Muslim leader. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) also explicitly stated that Ahok did not commit blasphemy with his statement. And political analysts believe this controversy will not affect his electability in the gubernatorial election in 2017 or change the minds of moderate Muslims in supporting Ahok.