The Jakarta gubernatorial election has escalated another dimension outside the political race — a massive and systematic use of religion to win votes.
This is actually not new to our elections. What makes the difference in the Jakarta election is the historic, first use of the Blasphemy Law in a gubernatorial election to charge one candidate, the incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for allegedly insulting Islam.
The controversy opens not only legal, but, more importantly, theological debates about Islam. However, propagators of the Blasphemy Law seem to dominate Islamic public discourse here.
Almost all the so-called moderate Muslim organizations support, to some extent, the accusation that Ahok has insulted Islam, excluding the executive body of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).
This is evident in the ongoing trial in which witnesses presented by the state prosecutors are mostly among the religious leaders of NU, Muhammadiyah, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and the Islam Defenders Front (FPI).
It is a tiny minority who are bravely expressing their opinion that Ahok has not blasphemed religion.
The silence of many progressive Muslim scholars and activists to speak their opinions on Ahok’s blasphemy case is mostly due to their fear to be considered as defenders of Ahok, who is of Chinese descent and a Christian.
Ahmad Ishomuddin is a young cleric who shocked us for his courage by being an expert witness in the Ahok trial on March 21. Amid many progressive Muslim scholars and activists who have tried to avoid it and are silent, he intentionally prepared himself to be an expert witness.
He was reportedly dismissed shortly afterwards from his position as the MUI’s deputy on its fatwa commission — although the MUI says it fired him because he was inactive.
Ishomuddin is present in a situation where silence is the best choice for fearful people. Therefore, his presence in court shows that the voice of progressive Muslims, although very soft, actually exists.
His stance is rare among established clerics of Muslim organizations who are generally comfortable with their privileges.
Ishomuddin is taking a different position by upholding justice and freedom as being at the heart of Islam.
He reminds us of the late courageous Indonesian president and leader of NU, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, who filed a request for the Constitutional Court to conduct a judicial review of the 1965 Blasphemy Law. The court upheld the law.
Ishomuddin is a young cleric born outside of the nobility of the NU family. He grew up in a religious family and his parents sent him to many pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) on Java, especially in East Java.
With his ordinary devote parents, he did not have the privilege of being the son of a kyai (great cleric) on Java, which would have otherwise entitled him to the honorific title of gus.
His privilege is his own intelligence, as is evident in his mastering of the various sciences of Islam.
Ishomuddin is also able to use his skills to solve contemporary issues. This is clear in his occupying one of many chairs on NU’s sharia body, the Rais Syuriah. Being in this position is not easy. Not all NU ulema are qualified for this body.
The requisite is a very high qualification in Islam’s various sciences as sharia symbolizes NU’s highest authority.
Ishomuddin’s courage reflects the genuine Islamic movement in dealing with the intimidating issue of blasphemy. He defended Ahok not by referring to religious freedom and human rights, but solely founding his argument on the classical sources of Islam, such as the Quranic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic legal theory.
His defense shows Islam can be used for religious freedom and human rights issues.
Ahok’s blasphemy case has further exposed Indonesia’s progressive Islamic movement, which currently has proven to be fragile and weak in its ability to spread its message to a general audience.
So far, many of us were awed by observers and the media who pronounced the “success” of the struggle of progressive Islam here — which has comes into question with the Ahok case.
We have many great and diligent Muslim scholars and activists, but their clarity regarding Ahok’s blasphemy case — a very important platform to voice their ideals of religion — has been utterly disappointing.
It is true that the progressive Islamic movement in Indonesia needs the support of brilliant Muslim scholars’ thoughts, but learning from the case of Ahok, mere thoughts are not enough.
What we are eager to have now are thoughts implemented in real action. Critical and diligent Muslim scholars who can speak out of their inclination toward justice and freedom without fear are our expectation.
This does not mean we should neglect risk. In a democratic country like we have now, risk should be the responsibility of the state, not of individuals.
Our responsibility is to break the silence and the only way is through courage.