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Some Indonesians Fear Country's Religious Intolerance Is Growing


Jakarta, Indonesia, has the second-largest population of any metropolitan area in the world right after Tokyo. This year, just after the U.S. inaugurated a new president, Jakarta chose a new governor. The campaign played on identity politics, and it ended with the incumbent in prison. The story has certain echoes of American politics.

TOM PEPINSKY: I'd like to think of Indonesia as a case from which we might learn both the positive aspects of democracy and the challenges that democratization places on diverse societies.

SHAPIRO: Tom Pepinsky is an Indonesia expert who teaches government at Cornell University, and he's going to help us tell this story today.

PEPINSKY: Indonesia's national motto is bhinneka tunggal ika, which means roughly unity in diversity, which sounds a lot like e pluribus unum in the United States.

SHAPIRO: Which means out of many one. I wanted to understand what happened in Jakarta's election and what lessons it might have for the U.S., so I went to Jakarta. Before we get there, though, a quick primer on how the Jakarta governor's campaign went down. Rewind history a year and the leader of one of the biggest cities in the world, the reigning incumbent, was a guy everybody calls Ahok. He spoke with NPR's Anthony Kuhn last year.


BASUKI TJAHAJA PURNAMA: History chose me for this position. You couldn't buy it. You couldn't ask. You couldn't choose. It is an honor.

SHAPIRO: Ahok's full name is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

PEPINSKY: The thing to know about Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is that he is both ethnic Chinese by ancestry and he's Christian. So he is a double minority in the Indonesian context. He is a minority religiously and ethnically.

SHAPIRO: More than 80 percent of people in Jakarta are Muslim. So if you wanted to draw a parallel with the U.S., you could say it's a bit like a black president governing a country that is majority white. And Pepinsky says like President Obama, Ahok was a popular leader.

PEPINSKY: He was viewed by many Jakarta citizens, a majority of them for sure, as being a very effective and capable governor.

SHAPIRO: He made progress on Jakarta's terrible traffic and flooding problems. Ahok's challenger in the campaign was a guy named Anies Baswedan. While Ahok was Christian, Anies was Muslim. And he played that up in the campaign.

PEPINSKY: Anies invoked very explicitly the importance of Islam.

SHAPIRO: You're saying he ran an identity-based campaign. He was like, I'm Muslim. That guy's Christian. That guy is Chinese. I'm the more Indonesian one. Vote for me.

PEPINSKY: The implication being that the Chinese Indonesian is somehow not completely Indonesian in the same way. And he won.

SHAPIRO: Nobody claimed that Ahok was born in Kenya, but there are certain similarities. And it worked. Ahok lost the election for the governor of Jakarta. But that's not the end of the story. During the campaign, Ahok got in trouble for this moment.


PURNAMA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: He said, people should not be fooled by politicians who say Muslims can only vote for Muslim candidates. Hard-line Muslim groups accused Ahok of blasphemy, of insulting Islam. And he was put on trial during the campaign.

PEPINSKY: When Christians are brought up on charges of blasphemy, they are normally convicted. And this is the case with him.

SHAPIRO: When I imagine the campaign rallies, I picture crowds of Indonesians chanting, lock him up, lock him up, lock him up.

PEPINSKY: There was some of that. There is a famous video that circulated of children marching down the street and saying, kill Ahok.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: To Indonesians of Chinese descent, This scene felt personal. In their lifetime minorities have been targeted, bullied and killed.

I went to a neighborhood of Jakarta called Glodok, where Indonesians of Chinese descent have lived for centuries. In narrow market streets people sell dried herbs, sea cucumbers and songbirds in cages. At a Buddhist temple in Glodok, a 20-year-old woman named Wen Wen she told me she was born and raised in Indonesia, and still she feels like an outsider.

WEN WEN: When you walk in the road, if you're Chinese it's like they will stare at you.

SHAPIRO: Really?

WEN WEN: Yeah. So my - I never walk alone in Indonesia.

SHAPIRO: And when Ahok was on trial and went to prison...

WEN WEN: I said, see; in Indonesia it's like people just - people is so racist.

SHAPIRO: So it confirmed your worst fears.

WEN WEN: Yeah, of course.

SHAPIRO: So Ahok, the former governor of Jakarta, went to prison for a two-year sentence. And then the president went after one of the hard-line Muslim groups that pushed for the blasphemy trial. The group is called Hizb ut-Tahrir. The government announced that the group was anti-Pancasila. That's Indonesia's founding principle of coexistence.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: My next stop in Jakarta was the group's headquarters.

On the facade where there used to be the big Hizb ut-Tahrir sign and logo it's now covered in black.

They aren't really supposed to have offices anymore, so they try to keep things low-key. Inside I met Ismail Yusanto, the group's spokesman.

Do you think that the Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned because the government was angry about what happened to Ahok?

ISMAIL YUSANTO: Yeah (laughter). Well, we called to the people. We called people not to elect Ahok because Ahok is not Muslim.

SHAPIRO: To say don't vote for him is one step.

YUSANTO: Yes. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: To say he should be in prison is the next step.

YUSANTO: To be in prison. And the next step is because Ahok insult Islam.

SHAPIRO: Some people argue that this should be a country where people can speak freely. You should go to prison for actions, but not for words.

YUSANTO: Word is part of action.

SHAPIRO: Word is part of action, he says. Now Ahok is in prison. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned. Jakarta has a new governor. And around the world analysts are debating, was this whole affair a blip, a hiccup in the world's third-largest democracy? Or has it undermined Indonesian founding principles of diversity and coexistence? People disagree on the answer to that question, but there is something that everybody agrees on. This fight was over one city, Jakarta. In 2019, the entire country will hold elections for president, and that will be an even bigger test of this democracy's strength. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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