Indonesia: Fears over violence in Jakarta as hardline Islamists protest governorâ€™s â€˜blasphemyâ€™
18,000 police deployed as thousands expected for demonstration against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or â€˜Ahokâ€™, who they accuse of â€˜insulting Islamâ€™
Security forces in the Indonesian capital Jakarta are on high alert in preparation for a Friday rally by hardline Islamist groups against the cityâ€™s non-Muslim governor.
Thousands of people are due to move into the capital to protest against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and Christian nicknamed â€˜Ahokâ€™, who has governed the city since 2014.
They accuse him of blasphemy after he criticised his opponents for referencing a verse in the Koran that warns against allying with Christians and Jews.
In September, Ahok suggested those who used the passage against him were â€œlyingâ€, leading to outrage from some hardliners who interpreted his comments as criticism of the Islamic holy text. He later apologised.
President Joko Widodo said on Monday that he had ordered the â€œstate apparatus to be on alertâ€ during the protests.
The main group behind the rally, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) which formed in 1999, is known for violent demonstrations and attacks on minorities.
The group tried unsuccessfully in 2014 to block Ahok from becoming governor on the grounds that a Christian should not lead a Muslim-majority city. And later that year, a protest by the FPI turned violent leaving several police officer injured.
On Friday, demonstrators will attend prayers at Istiqlal Mosque and then march to the presidential palace, where armoured personnel carriers have been stationed and the police and military will be deployed.
â€œI appeal to everyone to stay calm. Do not be easily provoked by the social media,â€ said National Police Chief General Tito, adding that 18,000 personnel have been deployed. The Indonesian military will provide a further 500 troops.
The rally is the second large demonstration against Ahok in a month. On 14 October, thousands took park in a generally peaceful event outside city hall.
As the worldâ€™s largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesians largely practice a moderate form of Islam. While the FPI is a relatively small group, the countryâ€™s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, has told its 40 million members not to support the protests.
But equally, Indonesiaâ€™s Ulama Council, the countryâ€™s top Muslim clerical body, agreed that Ahok had committed blasphemy and should be prosecuted. It said a non-Muslim should not become a leader of Muslims.
The southeast Asian nation has a history of sporadic and isolated violence against Christian as well as its large ethnic Chinese minority, many of whom are Buddhists.
International militant jihadists, some with influence and members in Indonesia, are looking to capitalise on the anti-Ahok sentiment.
Last month, al Qaidaâ€™s branch in Syria, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, said that Indonesia should sentence Ahok or it would â€œsentence him with bulletsâ€™. And ISIS supporters have sent messages to their supporters asking them to use the rally â€˜to fan the flames of jihadâ€™.
â€œItâ€™s clear that everyone is worried about violence, and huge numbers of police and soldiers have been called up for duty,â€ said Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.
The governor is looking toward a February election and looks likely to win. He is politically close with president Widodo, who also served as Jakarta governor for 18 months before rising to the countryâ€™s highest office and handing over to Ahok.
But Jones said that supporters of Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education who is second behind Ahok in the gubernatorial race, are exploiting the potentially explosive upheaval to damage him politically.
â€œThe problem is that there are too many interests involved here: Ahokâ€™s rivals would like to decrease his likelihood of winning; hardline civil society groups want to show that they control the streets; pro-shariah groups want to show massive support for Islamic law; the tiny jihadi groups are urging their members to show their courage by attacking police.â€
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