Asia-Pacific

Australian imam volunteering to defend Jakarta's Ahok at blasphemy trial

Shaikh M Tawhidi (left) talks with Ahok (right). Source: Supplied

The president of the Islamic Association of South Australia is heading to Indonesia’s capital hoping to defend its governor at a blasphemy trial.

Islamic Association of South Australia president Imam Shaikh Tawhidi has initiated contact with President Joko Widodo's office to ask if he could defend incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama during his blasphemy trial.

"I want all my followers in Indonesia to ask Jokowi to allow me to stand in court and defend Ahok," Imam Tawhidi told SBS. 

While Imam Tawhidi is based in Adelaide, he also holds a senior position with the Office of Shia scholar Grand Jurist Ayatollah al-Shirazi in Iran.

"I'll go [to Jakarta] as soon as the trial begins," he said.

"Even if they don't let me, I will take my followers and protest until I'm allowed in to defend Ahok, because it's not fair [that there are] Muslim judges, Muslim radical scholars, who corner a poor Christian man because of his understanding of the Quran."

Ahok, as he is commonly known, was elected as Jakarta governor in 2014, the first Christian of Chinese descent to take such position, at the same as the former governor Joko Widodo was elected as president of Indonesia.

Since last year, Ahok has been on trial for blasphemy in the biggest Muslim-majority country and the third-largest democracy in the world. Most of Indonesia's Muslim population are Sunni.

In early November, more than 100,000 people protested on Jakarta's streets to demand Ahok be prosecuted for blasphemy over comments he made about the Quran.

"Even if they don't let me, I will take my followers and protest until I'm allowed in to defend Ahok."

On September 27, in a speech to residents of Jakarta's Thousand Islands regency, Ahok criticised an interpretation of a Quranic verse - Surah Al Maidah 51 - saying it might discourage people from voting for non-Muslim leaders.

"Maybe in your heart you think you couldn't vote for me, but you're being lied to by using Al Maidah 51," he had said.

According to the Sahih International English Quran translation, the verse reads:

"O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people."

A video of Ahok making these comments was posted online and went viral.

In mid-November, he was named by the national police as a blasphemy suspect and by December he was indicted for blasphemy in the Central Jakarta District Court.

A spokesperson for Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Islamic organisation in the country, told national publication The Jakarta Post on Tuesday: "There's an indication to mislead people in which [Ahok] asked believers to not believe in the [Quranic] verse."

Another local publication, Kompas, reported Ahok as saying last year: "I did not say [things] that insulted the Quran.

"What I said to the local people of Thousand Islands is that if you are fooled by racists and cowards using that verse in the Quran not to vote for me, then don't vote for me."

His trial continues, with his next court appearance scheduled for after the results of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election where he is running against Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyo and Anies Baswedan, a former education and cultural minister.

Imam Tawhidi said he believed Ahok had not committed blasphemy and the case against him could be to dampen his chance of being re-elected as governor this year.

Imam Tawhidi said he believed those alleging Ahok had committed blasphemy were undermining Indonesia's democracy.

"[Those saying Ahok is blasphemous] are tied to their religious teachings that don't correspond with democratic principles, they clash," he said.

He added disrespecting Ahok, a Christian, in turn "disrespected Jesus Christ, the entire Christian religion".

Imam Tawhidi visited Indonesia last year to meet his followers. He said he respected Ahok for protecting him when he was met with death threats from Indonesia's Islamic hardline groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front.

"They threatened to kill me and I was welcomed and received by the governor of Jakarta [Ahok] and he assured me safety," Imam Tawhidi said.

His claims are consistent with Human Rights Watch Indonesia which said an anti-Shia sentiment was on the rise in the country. 

Shaikh M. Tawhidi stands with Jakarta Governor Ahok.
Shaikh M. Tawhidi stands with Jakarta Governor Ahok.
Supplied

Defending Ahok in court

Imam Tawhidi said he wanted to argue in court that Islamic groups had incorrectly interpreted Surah Al Maidah 51 that they alleged Ahok had referenced in a blasphemous manner.

"They are claiming that we cannot have Christians as friend and allies," he said.

"I believe the Christians are our brothers and more than allies, because when the Prophet Muhammad came to Mecca [during the emergence of Islam], there were plots of assassinations [by the leaders of Arabia] against his followers."

Muhammad sent his Muslim followers to Ethiopia because the Christian King Armah of the Kingdom of Aksum said he would protect them, Imam Tawhidi said.

"The Muslims sought refuge within the Christian government and lived peacefully."

Indonesia's blasphemy law

Some rights organisations believe that Indonesia's blasphemy article as stated in Article 156 Section (a) of the Criminal Code is outdated.

Human Rights Watch Indonesia Andreas Harsono told SBS: "Human Rights Watch repeatedly calls on the Indonesian government to revoke the blasphemy law."

A Pew Research Center analysis found that as of 2014 only one quarter of the world's countries had current blasphemy laws or policies.

Indonesia, which became a democracy after the 1998 revolution against the authoritarian regime led by President Soeharto, operates on the national ideology of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika or "unity in diversity". 

"In Indonesia, the maximum penalty is five years jail term," Andreas said.

"[The blasphemy law] is almost always used for political objectives, including in the Ahok case."

SBS has contacted Jakarta Governor Ahok's office for comment.

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