Blasphemy Trial Tests Pluralism in Mostly Muslim Indonesia

Jakarta, Indonesia -- The Christian chief of one of the world’s largest mostly Muslim cities delivered an emotional defense at the start of his blasphemy trial Tuesday, a politically charged case that has become a test of pluralism in this young democracy.

Hundreds of people had gathered outside the courthouse in central Jakarta to demand that Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama be jailed even before the verdict, carrying on from a series of massive street protests. They were countered by dozens of supporters of the governor—also the most prominent politician in Indonesia from the ethnic Chinese minority.

The small courtroom was filled to its capacity, about 80 people. In an unusual public display for Mr. Purnama, a blunt-talker often described as brash, he shed tears while telling the panel of five judges how his Muslim godparents had taught him Islamic values while he was growing up, and how insulting Islam would be tantamount to showing them disrespect.

He said he intended no insult during his speech in September, in which he lightheartedly referred to a verse in the Quran that says Muslims should not take Christians or Jews as leaders.

The remark, he said, was directed at politicians who use the verse incorrectly “because they don’t want to compete fairly in the elections.” He added that, “in this case, perhaps my language might have given the wrong perception or interpretation from what I had intended, or meant.”

Mr. Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, concluded by saying he objected to the charges and asked the court to dismiss them “so I can go back to serving the citizens of Jakarta and developing the city.”

The trial continues next Tuesday, and is expected to last several weeks. If convicted, Mr. Purnama, 50 years old, faces up to five years in prison.

He has previously apologized for the remarks. But excerpts from his speech, disseminated widely via social media, sparked widespread anger, stoked by hard-line Islamist groups long opposed to having a non-Muslim hold an elected office with authority over Muslims.

The vast majority of Jakarta’s roughly 10 million people are Muslim.

The tensions coincide with fears of Islamist terrorism as Indonesia enters the holiday season, when Western tourist numbers increase and churches have been targeted in past years.

On Saturday, police said they had foiled a plot to bomb the presidential palace by a female suicide bomber with links to Islamic State, the latest in a string of attacks or attempts this year.

The blasphemy case has shaken Indonesia’s reputation as a stable, tolerant democracy, following decades of authoritarian rule, as politics in Southeast Asia have taken a tumultuous turn.

Malaysia has been rocked by a colossal corruption scandal, the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte is awash in a bloody so-called war on drugs, and Thailand is increasingly under the grip of military rulers.

In a speech last week at a Democracy Forum in Bali, President Joko Widodo reiterated the country’s commitment to its national motto, “Unity in Diversity,” including religious freedom.

“The Indonesian people believe that through democracy, Indonesia will become a better country,” he said.

Nearly 90% of Indonesians are Muslim, but the country recognizes six religions and operates under a secular political system. For years hard-line groups have been challenging that foundation, making inroads culturally but with little political success.

However, once-fringe groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front have become increasingly organized and adept at using social media to spread their conservative message directly, sidelining mainstream Islamic organizations.

Analysts say in Mr. Purnama, whose moves to clear the crowded, dirty capital of slums have angered many of those being relocated, they seem to have found a lightning rod. Their Dec. 2 rally against the governor drew hundreds of thousands of people—one of the biggest in decades.

For the Islamists, Mr. Purnama is “the perfect gift,” said Greg Fealy, senior fellow in Indonesian politics at Australian National University.

A guilty verdict would “put a stop to pluralism because it doesn’t give space for minorities to be a part of the political fabric,” said Tobias Basuki, an analyst at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Purnama—who assumed office in 2014 when his then-boss, Mr. Widodo, was elected president—is seeking another term in elections in February. He is running against two Muslim candidates, including the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and a few months ago seemed well-positioned to win.

If convicted, Mr. Purnama would likely have to withdraw. That has fueled rumors that political rivals are aiding the Islamists as a way to undercut Mr. Purnama and his ally, Mr. Widodo, who faces re-election in 2018. Both men have clashed at times with Indonesia’s political and military elite.

All but one of the more than 100 blasphemy prosecutions in Indonesia between 2005 and 2014 ended in conviction, according to Amnesty International.