Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Challenge to Religious Tolerance: Fundamentalists' Resistance to a Non-Muslim Leader in Indonesia

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Challenge to Religious Tolerance: Fundamentalists' Resistance to a Non-Muslim Leader in Indonesia

Article excerpt


The largest mosque in Southeast Asia, called Istiqlal, stands across the street from a Catholic cathedral in the center of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. These two major religious buildings in Indonesia stand in a rather peaceful setting. In addition, Candi Borobudur, which is located in Central Java, is the largest and oldest single Buddhist monument in the world, with more than a 1,200-year-long history. Despite the fact that Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world,1 Indonesia has boasted of its religious tolerance for centuries.

Indonesia's multi-religious character has necessitated mutual respect and harmonious co-existence among religions throughout its recorded history. Indonesia's national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which means unity in diversity,2 constitutes an ideological pillar of the country. Not only do cultural heritages express mutual tolerance, but also the political arrangement of the country has been pledged to religious tolerance since the establishment of the Republic of Indonesia.

In fact, at the end of World War II, the preparatory committee for Indonesia's independence drafted a constitution that promised the implementation of Sharia law for Muslims. However, the sentence that stated this constitutional obligation was deleted when the constitution was officially promulgated.3 Moreover, the national policy to respect all religions has been installed as Pancasila in the constitution of the Republic of Indonesia.4 This political disposition clearly shows Indonesia's commitment to the creation of a harmonious society, in which the majority religion, Islam, and other minority religions can coexist peacefully.

Nonetheless, it is also true that religious tolerance in Indonesia has been disturbed from time to time in history, such as the nationwide 1998 riots at the time of the fall of the Suharto regime.5 We witness another example that challenges religious tolerance in Indonesia in 2017: a politician who is a non-Muslim Christian (Protestant) and of Chinese descent was running for the governorship in contest with Muslim candidates. This Chinese-Christian politician, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or popularly known as Ahok, has been criticized and accused of blasphemy for his comments on al-Quran during his campaign in September 2016. As a result, he was defeated in the gubernatorial election in April 2017 and was sentenced for two years imprisonment for blasphemy after the election.6

It is important to question whether a long-standing tradition of religious tolerance in Indonesia has been overturned by this political event. Equally important is that we explore the influence of religion in relation to the socio-political behavior of people. In the following parts of this paper, we attempt to find answers to these questions and to comprehend the meaning of this political event thoroughly.

The Background of Ahok

Ahok rose in political prominence when he paired with Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, then the mayor of Surakarta, for vice-governorship of Jakarta in 2012, although his political career started in 2005, when he was elected to serve as the regent of east Belitung.7 He was also a member of parliament between 2009 and 2012 until he joined the gubernatorial race with Jokowi. This newly emerging pair from outside of Jakarta with business backgrounds gained a great amount of popularity with the masses and were successfully elected governor and vice-governor, respectively, of Special Designated Capital Jakarta (or DKI Jakarta) in 2012.

The political path of Jokowi, however, continued to the highest position of the republic, when he was elected the president of Indonesia in 2014. Consequently, the vicegovernor, Ahok, was elevated to become governor of DKI Jakarta. It was his first gubernatorial election as a governor in 2017, when he paired with a former mayor of the east Javanese town of Blitar, Djarot Saiful Hidayat, who became a deputy in Ahok's administration in 2014. …

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