Updated at 6:05 p.m. ET on 2016-11-03
Indonesian police have announced they will summon the Christian governor of Jakarta for allegedly defaming a verse in the Quran, amid huge rallies by Muslims demanding he be investigated for blasphemy.
Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta and former right-hand man to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has long been disliked by conservative Muslim groups in Indonesia, but tensions have soared since an excerpt of remarks he made in September went viral on social media.
“He is scheduled (for questioning) on Monday morning. He is summoned as a witness,” national police criminal investigation division head Comr. Gen. Ari Dono Sukmanto told reporters in Jakarta on Thursday.
The statement came as police were beefing up security in the capital ahead of a planned rally by tens of thousands of Muslims from across the country on Friday demanding police thoroughly investigate the matter.
Some 20,000 security personnel had been deployed to oversee the protest amid concerns it could erupt into violence or be infiltrated by violent extremists.
Muslim leaders said they aimed to stage a peaceful protest. They insist the drive to prosecute Ahok was unrelated to his religion, ethnicity or candidacy in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in February.
Ahok is accused of alleged blasphemy for telling attendees at an event in September that people might “fool them” into not voting for him using the Quran’s Surah Al-Maida Verse 51, which some interpret as prohibiting Muslims from having non-Muslim leaders.
A number of Muslim organizations reported Ahok to the police for alleged blasphemy after a video recording of the event circulated widely.
The governor apologized for causing a flap and reported to police of his own accord on Oct. 24 to discuss the remarks. Muslim leaders have said that while they accepted his apology, his case should still be prosecuted.
Muslims in Jakarta and other cities held rallies on Oct. 14 demanding legal action against Ahok and decrying what they saw as foot-dragging by police and silence from Jokowi on the matter.
“The president’s silence is perceived as taking (Ahok’s) side. There is doubt that Jokowi is being neutral in this matter,” political analyst from elections monitoring group Lingkar Madani Untuk Indonesia (Lima), Ray Rangkuti told BenarNews on Thursday.
Ahok was Jokowi’s deputy when the president was Jakarta governor from 2012 to 2014. Ahok assumed the governorship when Jokowi was sworn in as president.
Indonesia’s major Muslim organizations and its top clerical body have all expressed the view that Ahok defamed the Quran and should be investigated for the allegation.
‘We are a pluralistic country’
On Tuesday, Jokowi met with leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) at the Presidential Palace in a bid to soothe the tensions.
The group discussed Ahok’s comment about the Quranic verse, according to Ma’ruf Amin, the head of the MUI.
“The president said it should be processed [under the law] and he is not going to intervene in this matter,” Ma’ruf said.
Abdul Mu’ti, the secretary general of Muhammadiyah, said Jokowi should meet with the head of the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), the hardline group organizing the rally.
“The president also needs to sit down with Habib Rizieq, just like he sat down with Prabowo,” Mu’ti told reporters.
The meetings followed Jokowi’s unusual visit the day before to his rival in the 2014 presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, at his residence in Bogor, West Java.
Jokowi said it was a long-planned visit but Rangkuti, the analyst, said the timing suggested the encounter was related to the upcoming rally.
In a press conference broadcast live after the meeting, Prabowo warned against “elements that want to divide the nation” in the run-up to local elections across the nation in February.
“That’s something we really watch for. We are a pluralistic country. Our country has many tribes, many religions, many races. If there are problems, let’s resolve them in a cool-headed way, a peaceful way,” he said.
Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also paid visits to top administration officials this week, another move that appeared to heighten tension, because his son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, is running against Ahok in the Jakarta gubernatorial race.
Foreign embassies issued warning to their citizens residing in the capital to steer clear of the rally and take caution in areas with large gatherings.
“U.S. citizens are reminded that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence,” the U.S. Embassy said on its website.
At a discussion on radicalism and the Jakarta election on Tuesday, Sidney Jones, the director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), said there was a possibility that terrorist groups could infiltrate the rally.
“A number of parties could take advantage of the rally, including organizations committed to wage war like (the Islamic State) and other groups in Syria,” she said.
She said that although the chances were slim for a terrorist attack, problems could arise from anger boiling over.
“The government’s mistake is letting the radical groups control the political agenda. Why was there no effort to get them all together and cool down the situation?” Jones said.