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BACKGROUND: Christian Governor's 'Blasphemy' Vs. Indonesian Tolerance

BACKGROUND: Christian Governor's 'Blasphemy' Vs. Indonesian Tolerance

By Nicholas Gulley, TMP Guest Contributor

On May 9th, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of Jakarta, was removed from office and sentenced to two years in prison by an Indonesian court, engulfing Indonesia in political turmoil. His crime: an alleged violation of blasphemy laws in Sept. of last year when Ahok “misinterpreted” Sura 5:51 of the Quran during his campaign for reelection.

Sura 5:51 forbids Muslims to align themselves with Christians and Jews, for “anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them,” and “God does not guide such wrongdoers.” Hard-line Islamic groups interpreted this to mean that Muslims could not vote for Ahok in the election. In response, Ahok dismissed Islamist interpretations of the verse and proclaimed it was permissible for Muslims to vote for him.

The verdict condemning Ahok was devastating for his supporters and is a threat to Christians in Indonesia. Meanwhile, conservative Muslims supported the decision, feeling that Ahok’s comment was deserving of such punishment.


Pancasila has allowed the largest Muslim-majority nation to thrive while modeling tolerance and democratic values in the Muslim world. However, Governor Ahok’s imprisonment suggests that Pancasila may be losing ground to Islamizing forces.

The ruling against Ahok has led to conflict within Indonesia between the nation’s policy of Pancasila (unity in diversity) and the role blasphemy laws play in disrupting that unity. Ahok’s trial and sentence indicates that Indonesia - once a shining example of a moderate, Muslim-majority nation - may be in danger of losing the qualities that distinguish it from the rest of the Islamic world as a model of democracy and pluralism.

When Indonesia declared itself an independent democracy (three days after Japan surrendered to the Allies in WWII), it did so with the philosophical foundation of Pancasila. The unique system is based on five principles: “belief in the one and only God, just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives,” and “social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia.”

Pancasila has allowed the largest Muslim-majority nation to thrive while modeling tolerance and democratic values in the Muslim world. However, Governor Ahok’s imprisonment suggests that Pancasila may be losing ground to Islamizing forces.

The Delicate Task of Interpreting the Quran

At the heart of this turmoil is the nature of the Quran and how it is rightly to be interpreted by the Muslim community. The key to understanding this is in the created/uncreated distinction: whether the text is formed by humans or is a direct revelation from God.

Christians believe the Bible to be a created work. Human authors wrote and compiled dozens of books over thousands of years in various historical contexts to assemble it. Scripture is “breathed out” (2 Timothy 3:16) by God and recorded by its authors who are guided by the “Spirit of truth” (John 16:13), while still retaining their own thoughts and experiences.

Most Muslims, on the other hand, believe the Quran to be uncreated because it has no human author. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad was completely seized by Allah and commanded to “read” the divine revelation spoken from his lips (Sura 96:1). In this view, there is no human element involved in the Quran, and so anything in its pages is treated as coming directly from God. Whereas the Bible is written in the third person, in the Quran Allah speaks directly to the believer in the first person.

This uncreated nature of the Quran lends itself to two different responses unseen in a Christian context.

First, reader participation in Quranic exegesis is limited to recreating the author’s intent for a passage (in this case Allah's intent).

Allah exists outside of creation itself, and is therefore capable of fixing universal meaning to a text because of His omnipotence and control over the world. When traditionalist Muslims read the Quran, they believe that when Allah spoke through Muhammad, He spoke for all eternity.


The key to understanding right interpretation is in the created/uncreated distinction. Muslims believe the Quran is uncreated because it has no human author and is a direct revelation from God.

Meanwhile, Christian exegesis of the Bible demands that the reader play a role in working with the text to discern meaning for a particular passage, given the author's situation within history.

For example, a passage in 1 Corinthians cannot have a fixed meaning for a modern reader because the human author, the Apostle Paul, could not have predicted any scenario thousands of years in advance. Christians indeed believe Scripture speaks to daily life, but the reader is expected to seek applications in light of a particular situation.

Second, because the Quran is understood as direct revelation, misinterpreting or insulting the Quran is a therefore a direct insult to Allah. In the Quran, Allah directly communicates with the reader in the immediate present, and so to twist His words is particularly distressing to Muslims.

Blasphemy and the Quran in Indonesia

Indonesia’s blasphemy laws have been in place since 1965 as a means of discouraging faulty interpretations of the Quran other sacred texts of Indonesia’s many religions.

According to Ali (named changed for anonymity), a teacher at Tebuireng Pesantren boarding school and specialist in teaching the Quran, a blasphemous interpretation is one that “hurts the heart of Muslims.”

Ali says such an interpretation usually reflects lack of knowledge of the Quran and the various authoritative sources of Islam, including the hadith (sayings of the Prophet deemed authoritative), fatwas issued by the Ulama (rulings on Islamic Law), various tafsir (interpretations of the Quran).

An example he provided was the sect of Islam called the Ahmadiyya, which proclaims that there is a prophet after Muhammad who will come - someone Ali suspects would be a charismatic opportunist just pretending to be next prophet. If someone makes such a claim in public, then an Ulama (body of Islamic scholars) can issue a formal complaint to the government, which will oversee his arrest, trial, and sentence.


Disparate views are recognized and tolerated in accordance with Pancasila, but some views require a response.

This raises the question of what an authoritative interpretation of Quran is and who may make one. Ali says the scholars of the Ulama have the most knowledge regarding the Quran and other sources, and the fatwas they issue are the most authoritative regarding proper interpretation.

Ali belongs to the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest moderate Muslim organization in Indonesia, which many of the Pesantren students and faculty also trust to guide them. There are many different Ulamas issuing different tafsir of the Quran, and the faculty and students of Pesantren choose to follow the Nahdlatul Ulama, while respectfully disagreeing with the others.

In Ali’s eyes, not even he as an accomplished teacher feels comfortable interpreting the Quran by himself because he lacks the experience greater scholars have, and the risk of leading others astray - and committing blasphemy - is too great.  

One of the most respected scholars of the Quran in the city of Jombang, Mr. Hakim, described to a group of international visitors his methods for arriving at “the way” of Islam. Hakim explained that, since individual interpretations often contain errors, scholars come together to check each other and arrive at a more complete interpretation of the Quran. Disparate views are recognized and tolerated in accordance with Pancasila, but some views require a response.

According to Mr. Hakim, private truth claims, left unchecked, can lead to radicalism, or at the very least can lead people off the right path. Therefore it is better to leave the interpreting to him and others of similar standing, and to discourage independent interpretation without this deeper knowledge. Because of these checks on individual interpretations, Mr. Hakim claims that the Ulama has not made a mistake to this very day.

Ahok’s Case

Traditional Muslims consider Ahok’s interpretation of Sura 5:51 to be a misinterpretation worthy of condemnation and censure. Two things went wrong in Ahok’s case. 

First, Ahok is not Muslim, and so does not know enough about Islam to freely interpret the Quran. Second, he made his personal, interpretive remarks in public.

Misinterpreting the Quran in this case was seen as a great insult, according to Ali, because it contested the divinity of the passage by proclaiming it could be ignored. While anyone is allowed to have an opinion, the danger lies in the unchecked truth claim, declared in public, that could lead people astray.

This case demonstrates the limits of the tolerance enshrined in Pancasila.

For example, in private, anyone could tell Ali that he does not believe certain aspects of the Quran, and so long as the unbeliever is cordial this would be acceptable.

If that person then went onto the streets of Jombang with a sign that said “The Quran is a lie,” the Ulama and the judicial system would step in. Privacy and good manners matter a great deal in questions of blasphemy, and Ahok paid a steep price for violating those norms.

Where do we go from here?

A Christian politician in Indonesia might be expected to be shrewd enough not to tell Muslims what their holy book says. Nevertheless, the trial and sentencing of Ahok stand opposed to Indonesia’s stated values of tolerance and strength in diversity.

Ahok did not claim to be a prophet. He offered an opinion that likely would have been allowed in private conversation.

Ahok’s mistake has become a teachable moment, but this trial and sentencing only demonstrates how hollow Pancasila has become by showing that tolerance of different theological opinions applies only to private conversation and whether the Ulama agrees with them.  

These blasphemy laws were made to guide people toward the right path of Islam, but have now been used as a weapon by conservative Muslims to punish political opponents.

If Indonesia is going to be the moderate Islamic nation it claims to be, it must develop a broader understanding of tolerance. Ideas placed in public sphere should be allowed to be discussed and worked on by the community.

Only in doing so can Indonesia maintain its unique position in the Islamic world and continue to be an example of a Muslim-majority nation guided by democratic values.


 Nicholas Gulley is a recent graduate of The King’s College in Manhattan.  He spent the month of May 2017 in Jombang, Indonesia, on a venture sponsored by The Media Project.


Photo of Ahok at awards ceremony in 2016 by Miya Sumandli, posted to Wikipedia under Creative Commons license. 

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