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Misinformation and The Politicization of Religion in Indonesia by Elena Alimin (⅔)

My name is Elena and I am an 18-year old Chinese-Indonesian planning to study Business Economics at UCLA this fall. Born and raised in Jakarta, I have both experienced and learned about the many conflicts and political upheavals that Indonesia has faced over the years.

For historical context, Indonesia was trapped beneath the colonial rule of the Dutch for centuries, followed by the Japanese. We finally achieved independence in 1945, and the independence proclamation was ratified at the capital, Jakarta, the place I call home. This is part two of my series on Indonesian politics.

Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country (with 87.2% of the population being Muslim), and as result, religion has come to play a big role in our already largely conservative culture, so much so that it has become a driving force of Indonesian politics. It is too often used as a tool to gain political points. The controversial nature of religious debates have an astounding effect on the image of a politician, and with it, public support for their candidacy. With the growing presence of social media, it is easy for fake news to be spread among citizens. But, access to technology also enables citizens to educate themselves and form an unbiased stance on a political issue. However, increased access to information hasn’t influenced the opinions of many Indonesians, whose knowledge of politics mainly lies within the confinements of their villages and communities. For many, the claims of an esteemed religious figure, however baseless, can be taken with more weight than the facts provided by unbiased news sources. Moreover, those who do have access to social media tend to be swept away in the hysteria surrounding political scandals, with many news sources creating dramatized news headlines designed to grab public attention, rather than accurately reflect the situation.

A recent political scandal that stemmed from this perception of religion and the hysteria caused by mass media was the imprisonment of the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok for short). In a controversial video released by the press in 2016, Ahok (who was in office at the time) hinted that his political opponents had used a passage from the Al-Qur’an (the central religious text of Islam) to trick people into voting against him, as Ahok himself is an outspoken Chinese-Indonesian political candidate with beliefs in Christianity (a double minority in Indonesia). A translated excerpt from his controversial video includes, “Don’t believe those people. It is possible that deep in [your] heart you cannot vote for me. [You may be] deceived [by other people] by the AlMaidah 51.” (quote taken from The Jakarta Post source).

The release of this video, along with various misleading commentaries and misquotes by members of the press, caused an instantaneous uproar that eventually led to him being charged and imprisoned for the criminal act of blasphemy. The irony lies in how Ahok had previously been commended for his many good deeds just before the video was released, particularly in alleviating the flooding risks in Jakarta and for carrying out projects to clean many polluted communities. Many believe that although Ahok misspoke, his imprisonment was unjust and brought about by his political opponents. As Ahok was a main supporter of eradicating corruption, which many Indonesian political figures are admittedly guilty of, much speculation arose suggesting that his unfavourable political standing among existing government officials ultimately led to his imprisonment.

During this time, many religious figures and political candidates (especially those representing Islamic political parties) spoke out in condemnation of Ahok. At the height of the scandal, there were few articles that spoke in favor of Ahok. Controversially, many claim that the public outcry was fuelled by existing sentiments on race and religion. This kind of incident is not unique or isolated. A civil servant was sentenced to two years in prison for revealing his atheism on Facebook.

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