Jakarta. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama on Wednesday did something no other Indonesian leader has done since the late Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid was president: the Jakarta governor took a stand for a beleaguered minority group.
Speaking to reporters at City Hall, Basuki said his administration would permit members of the Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect deemed heretical by the country’s Sunni majority, to congregate for prayers in their own homes, following protests by Islamic hard-liners against a small community of the worshipers in Tebet, South Jakarta.
Those hostile to the group, primarily the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a rent-a-mob with religious pretensions, have rather ridiculously taken offense at the fact that the Ahmadis, who have been living and praying in the Bukit Duri neighborhood of Tebet since the 1970s, have consistently declined to worship at a nearby mosque.
The protesters claim this refusal harms their own identity as Muslims, and demand that the Ahmadis be evicted on the grounds that they are violating zoning regulations by holding prayer gatherings in a residential property.
Basuki, though, says his administration will grant an exemption from the regulation to all Ahmadiyah communities in the city who wish to worship at members’ homes instead of at mosques, where their slightly different prayer rituals often mark them out for persecution by their Sunni Muslim peers.
“We’ll let them get around the zoning restrictions so that their houses may be used as places of worship,” he said.
Basuki, a Christian whose own beliefs were the target of a nasty smear campaign by Islamic hard-liners during the 2012 gubernatorial election, said the issue of faith was a personal one and that all citizens should be allowed to worship as they wanted to, in keeping with basic tenets enshrined in the Constitution.
“As for the question of whether a group is heretical or not, that’s something else. We, as the state, cannot get involved in that kind of issue. Constitutionally we’re not supposed to touch it,” he said.
The governor also criticized South Jakarta municipal authorities for sealing off the Ahmadiyah property in Bukit Duri on July 8 on the pretext that it was functioning as a house of worship without the requisite building permit.
“What was the real reason for sealing it? The way I see there, there are plenty of houses of worship all around Jakarta without a building permit. Why haven’t those been sealed off too?” he said.
Basuki’s actions in standing up for the Ahmadiyah are an anomaly in Indonesian governance, where local and national leaders instinctively try to placate or accommodate the persecutors and hard-liners who make up their voter base.
In the neighboring city of Bogor, Mayor Bima Arya Sugiarto pledged long before his inauguration in April 2014 to prioritize finding a resolution to a long-running church closure there by Muslim hard-liners.
To date, the GKI Yasmin church remains sealed off – also on the grounds that it lacked a valid building permit – in direct violation of two Supreme Court orders obliging the Bogor administration to allow the congregation back in.
President Joko Widodo, whose election campaign last year also included vows to address religious tensions, has been silent on the issue, despite the fact that the Yasmin congregation and that from the HKBP Filadelfia church, sealed off in Bekasi, continue to hold Sunday services outside the State Palace in a bid to draw his attention to their plight.
Basuki’s lone act of statesmanship carries echoes of the late Gus Dur, who, during his brief presidency, ended a decades-long ban on the display of Chinese characters and made Chinese New Year an optional holiday in 2001.
Basuki has long professed to have drawn inspiration from Gus Dur, who died in December 2009. He said it was the former president who encouraged him to run for governor of Bangka-Belitung province in 2007. Basuki lost that election, but says Gus Dur still had pearls of wisdom for him even then.
“He said, ‘Forget about governor, you could be the president if you wanted,’” Basuki said on April 25, during a ceremony to unveil a bronze statue of Gus Dur as a child at Amir Hamzah Park in Central Jakarta.