In early April, a huge demonstration gripped Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and one of the most populous Muslim cities in the world. Tens of thousands of white-robed protesters turned out to the center of the city, calling for the impeachment of Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, Jakarta’s first Christian governor in decades.
Ahok is a Christian of Chinese descent, which makes him a double minority in majority-Muslim Indonesia. Ever since he was first promoted to governor in 2014 after his running mate left the post to run for president, hardline Muslim groups have mobilized against him, arguing that a Quranic verse called the al-Maidah forbids Muslims from having Christian leaders. Ahok, a notoriously hardheaded politician, took to the campaign trail to vigorously contest the validity of this interpretation of the Quran. In November, Ahok was charged with blasphemy after telling Muslim audiences that they shouldn’t be misled by imams who say Muslims are forbidden to vote for non-believers. (The trial is ongoing.)
With Ahok up for election on April 19, one of the fundamental questions the election poses is whether Jakartans are willing to vote for a Christian as governor. His Muslim opponent, Anies Baswedan, has said that he, personally, would never support a Christian for the role. With the political camps so neatly divided—Ahok’s coalition represents pluralism; Baswedan’s represents conservative political Islam—this election has become a major referendum on the strength of diversity in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country. Polling suggests the race is extremely tight and could go either way.
Many of the Muslim leaders I met who were demonstrating against Ahok said that it was an open-and-shut case in Islam that Christians could not lead Muslims. “The Quran is very clear” that Christian leaders are forbidden, said Sofyan, who goes by only one name and who helped coordinate anti-Ahok protests for the hardline Forum Umat Islam group.
But while Ahok’s Islamist opponents insist that the Quran is clear and Muslims cannot be led by Christians (or by Jews), this is, in fact, a far from settled question within Islam. According to Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of Islamic Exceptionalism, even within political Islam there is no clear consensus about the role non-Muslims should be allowed to play. “The argument that a non-Muslim cannot be governor of a city, that’s not something we should take at face value, even among Islamists, let alone Muslims more broadly,” he said.
Throughout the Muslim world there is great diversity in how Muslim societies treat the idea of non-Muslim leaders. In a few Muslim-majority nations, like Senegal and Burkina Faso, Christians have been elected to the presidency, the highest office of the land. In 17 other Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, non-Muslims are legally restricted from becoming head of state. (By contrast, according to the Pew Research Center there are just two countries where Christians are required by law to be head of state, not including cases where “figurehead monarchs” like Britain’s monarch are required to be Christian.) In Indonesia, anyone can legally attain any office, including the presidency.
According to Hamid, Indonesia’s Islamists take an even harder stance against minorities’ right to rule than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood did. The Muslim Brotherhood’s official position was that non-Muslims could attain any state position except that of president; a Christian became vice-president of their political party and was considered as a possible vice-president of Egypt.
Some progressive Indonesian Muslim leaders have suggested that one reason Indonesia’s Islamists take such a hard stance toward non-Muslim leaders is due to mistranslation of the Quran from Arabic, which few Indonesians speak as a first language, to Bahasa Indonesia, the national language. In 2012, when Ahok first ran for deputy governor of Jakarta and Islamists attacked him, Akhmad Sahal, an Indonesian academic, wrote an article in Tempo, the nation’s most prominent news magazine, titled “Are Non-Muslim Leaders Forbidden?” In the piece he argues that the Indonesian translation of the crucial Arabic passage is quite different from the intended Arabic meaning. While in one standard Indonesian translation the Quranic passage reads “O! devout followers, do not take Christians and Jews and make them your leaders,” in the original Arabic, the word that is translated as “leaders” actually means something closer to “protectors” or “allies.”
A contextualist like Sahal interprets the passage to have meaning within the specific context of Muhammad’s era, as opposed to preventing friendships and alliances with non-Muslims in a pluralist society like 21st-century Indonesia. But even if you aren’t a contextualist, his piece suggests, the actual passage says nothing about non-Muslim “leaders.”
In a more recent article, Alhafiz Kurniawan, a journalist who writes for the website of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, argues that in the context of democratic Indonesia’s constitution and separation of powers, political leaders today simply don’t have the same powers as Muslim political leaders did in the days of Muhammad, so it’s false to assume Quranic injunctions forbidding 7th-century leadership can be neatly applied to today’s Indonesia. Kurniawan argues that Indonesian political leaders today are merely public servants who serve as “a bridge between the people and the constitution” and “do not have full power,” unlike a political leader in Muhammad’s day.
But Islamist thinkers who believe scripture is clear reject these arguments. Indeed, in Indonesia today references to the al-Maidah are so ubiquitous that they’re even showing up in comic books. Marvel Comics expressed regret this month when it discovered that Ardian Syaf, an Indonesian artist who draws for Marvel, drew a picture of the Colossus in X-Men Gold with the letters “QS 5:51,” a reference to the verse taken to forbid non-Muslim leadership, apparently to illustrate the verse’s power. “Choosing a non-[Muslim] as a leader is forbidden,” Syaf subsequently explained in an interview. (He has since had his contract terminated, which he blamed on the Jews.)
Fery Farhati, the wife of Anies Baswedan, the Muslim candidate in the Jakarta elections, has attended training sessions to produce soap branded as “al-Maidah soap,” which will be sold to raise funds for local communities.
At one sermon I attended, at the Istiqal mosque, a prominent preacher named Abdullah Gymnastar congratulated Londoners on selecting the Muslim Sadiq Khan as their mayor, but said the al-Maidah makes it clear it would be inappropriate for Muslim Indonesians to select a religious minority, like Ahok, for themselves.
The reason Ahok may well win the election anyway is that plenty of Jakarta Muslims disagree with these interpretations, and would much rather be led by a pluralist Christian than a bigoted Muslim.
“In Indonesian culture the majority of Indonesians will never subscribe to the extreme version of Islam,” said Savic Ali, a progressive Muslim campaigner who supports Ahok.
In a rebuke to extremists, NU, the Muslim group claiming over 50 million members, invited Ahok to its offices on April 10. At the meeting Said Aqil Siradj, NU’s leader, noted that “Ahok is already NU.” The National Awakening Party and the United Development Party, the Islamist political parties loosely affiliated with NU, have formally endorsed the Christian candidate.
Others have stepped up as well. Indonesia’s pluralist Muslim president, Joko Widodo, introduced Ahok to King Salman of Saudi Arabia when the monarch visited last month, as a way to rebut the charge that the Muslim world opposes Ahok. Joko has also given speeches lamenting the spread of religious hatred and warned Indonesians against mixing politics and religion. For these Muslim leaders, preserving Indonesian pluralism is more important than having a governor who shares their religion.
Andrew Lebovich, who researches the politics and history of West Africa at Columbia University, pointed out parallels between the debates that have emerged in Indonesia about non-Muslim leadership and debates elsewhere in the Muslim world. Senegal, which is more than 90 percent Muslim, was led for 20 years after independence by Leopold Sedar Senghor, a Christian poet and intellectual. He was a “singular personality at a difficult time,” Lebovich explained. Just as Indonesian Muslims are divided between progressive Muslim thinkers and conservative Islamists, Senegal had its own Muslim divisions—between Sufi Muslim spiritualists, who were Senghor’s main base of support, and modernist Muslims who sought to make Senegalese Islam scripturally-based and orthodox, and who made up much of Senghor’s opposition.
“There was certainly some opposition to Senghor as himself and Senghor as a Christian, but he was able to leverage and co-opt other groups of Muslims in order to support his rule,” Lebovich said.
Ahok, with his active courting of a moderate Muslim organization like NU, is similarly trying to leverage support of Muslim groups that stand opposed to hardline orthodox Islam.
Although it’s clearly difficult for non-Muslim politicians to rise in the Muslim world, experts say it’s difficult for minority political leaders to gain political power anywhere.
“This is not a ‘Muslim problem,’” Jeremy Menchick, assistant professor of political science and religious studies at Boston University, wrote in an email. “How many Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists have been President of the U.S. or even in Congress? How did the Jewish and evangelical community react to [Muslim congressman Keith] Ellison being a candidate for [Democratic National Committee] chair? How do Arab parties fare in Israel? Or Muslim politicians in the Philippines?” The simplest explanation for the relative paucity of non-Muslim leaders in the Muslim world may just be that societies everywhere tend to have leaders who demographically represent them.
And, of course, religion and ethnicity aren’t everything: Plenty of people oppose Ahok because of his controversial slum-clearance programs or his perceived arrogance.
“Muslims, like Christians, like Jews, choose what role religion plays in their lives and in their politics, and these things evolve over time,” Lebovich said. “Even if there is a religious injunction, people decide how seriously to take it.”