Religious Tensions Simmer in Jakarta Campaign

By webadmin on 05:45 pm Aug 06, 2012
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Ronna Nirmala

A chance encounter during the weekend between the two candidates in Jakarta’s increasingly nasty gubernatorial election runoff did little to ease the tensions stoked by the religious baiting that has become the main issue in the campaign.

Joko Widodo, the Solo mayor who won the most votes in the first round of voting last month, and incumbent Governor Fauzi Bowo crossed paths on Saturday night at Cipto Mangunkusumo General Hospital, where both were visiting a prominent Muslim leader, Habib Munzir.

“Yes, I did meet him. But it seems Fauzi was in a rush so we didn’t get a chance to say anything. We just shook hands,” Joko said.

What Joko wanted to discuss was the issue of racial and religious slurs. Since the start of Ramadan two weeks ago, clerics in many mosques have taken to loudspeakers to tell their congregations to vote for Muslims in next month’s runoff vote.

In the most widely reported incident, Rhoma Irama, the dangdut singer who has made appearances with Fauzi during the campaign, told a crowd gathered in a mosque for Ramadan prayers that it was their duty to vote only for Muslims.

The attacks are directed at Joko’s running mate, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Christian and ethnic Chinese.

One of Joko’s political patrons, People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) speaker and Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chief adviser Taufik Kiemas, has been trying to arrange talks between the two campaigns to put an end to the use of religious slurs.

While Fauzi has not dismissed the idea of sitting down, he has made it clear that it’s not his first priority. “We welcome [Joko’s calls]. But I have to look after Jakarta while [Joko] is a mere gubernatorial candidate,” he said on Friday.

And while Fauzi said “there is no place for divisive issues in this Pancasila-based country,” referring to the country’s ideology of pluralism, he added that “as clerics, what they are saying is not untrue.”

The Jakarta Elections Supervisory Committee (Panwaslu) is looking into the remarks by Rhoma that brought this issue to wider attention. The so-called king of dangdut was delivering a sermon at the Al Isra Mosque in Tanjung Duren, West Jakarta, last Saturday when he attacked Basuki’s religious background.

Rhoma, who failed to appear on Friday at the Panwaslu office to explain the remarks, claimed he had done nothing wrong because he had merely quoted a verse from the Koran that says Muslims should never choose an infidel to lead them, otherwise they would incur God’s wrath.

“Was that wrong? I believe in the truth of the Koran and I was simply telling the truth,” he said. “It is my duty to reveal the truth to the Muslim faithful.”

Panwaslu officials met on Friday with representatives from Joko’s campaign team to study the seven-minute video of Rhoma’s sermon and determine whether it violated prohibitions on campaigning along ethnic and religious lines.

Ramdansyah, the Panwaslu chairman, said even if no campaign violation could be proven, it was wrong of Rhoma to use a religious sermon to attack someone, adding that it could constitute a criminal offense.

Fauzi has refused to comment directly on the remarks by Rhoma, who has appeared in several of the governor’s campaign commercials. “We have our regulations and laws” was all he said.

Joko’s campaign team is ready to move on. “We don’t expect an apology from him over this matter, but it would show a great deal of character if he chose to give one,” said Denny Iskandar, a campaign official.

Joko says he’s still a fan of Rhoma. “I’m not joking. If you asked me to sing 10 songs by Rhoma, I could probably do it,” he said.

He said one of his favorite songs by Rhoma was “135 Juta” (“135 Million”), about diversity and pluralism.

The song, written in the 1980s when the country’s population was about 135 million, is a tribute to the diversity of the nation. Its message of tolerance is a far cry from the religious divisiveness that has taken hold of the election campaign.