The conviction rate for blasphemy in Indonesia is 100%, and that’s bad news for Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. The talented Jakarta Governor faces up to five years in prison after a court decided Tuesday that prosecutors have a credible case against him for making lighthearted comments about the Quran. A conviction will deprive Jakarta of an able administrator and reformer, but the bigger damage is to Indonesia’s religious and ethnic harmony.
After Mr. Purnama made his supposedly offending comments in September, Islamist groups misquoted him to stoke outrage against the Governor, who is Christian and ethnic Chinese. They held a 150,000-person hate rally on Nov. 4 after which rioters burned cars and looted shops.
President Joko Widodo, Mr. Purnama’s ally, bowed to the Islamist pressure and opened a blasphemy investigation. At that point it looked like Mr. Purnama would still be cleared. Most religious experts consulted by the police said there was no case against him. But then the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and other extremist groups used traditional and online media to convince moderate and middle-class Muslims that their faith was under attack. A Dec. 2 prayer rally against Mr. Purnama attracted 500,000.
That shift in public opinion led to a political realignment. Mr. Widodo stood on stage with Islamic Defenders Front leader Rizieq Shihab to thank the crowd for remaining peaceful. The signal was unmistakable: The President was throwing his former deputy under the bus to ensure his own survival.
Mr. Widodo accuses “political actors” of orchestrating the rallies and media campaigns, which were beyond the capabilities of the relatively small Islamist groups. It’s clear he meant former President Susil Bambang Yudhoyono and failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, both retired generals. They deny being involved.
But the two leaders have a strong interest in defeating Mr. Purnama, since their parties are fielding candidates in the gubernatorial race, including Mr. Yudhoyono’s son. If one of them wins, he will be in a good position to challenge Mr. Widodo for the Presidency in 2019.
Mr. Widodo is a skilled politician, and public support for democracy remains strong. But even if he survives and wins re-election, the powerful sectarian forces his enemies are unleashing will live on. This poses a threat to Indonesia’s secular political system and to the open economy the President is trying to build.