Fire in Jakarta

City politics and the rise of conservative Islam

Arin Dwihartanto, Scrap (Lagedu). 2016. Photo by Ario Wibisono for ROH Projects. Courtesy of ROH Projects.

A poor-quality, thirty-second YouTube video shows Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta, delivering a speech on one of the small tropical islands off the north coast of the city in September 2016. He stands inside a community center in a short-sleeve beige uniform, with a name card on a retractable cord fixed to his breast pocket. Members of his cabinet, all men in similar uniforms, sit behind him in kids’ chairs incongruous with their station but fitting for the informal event: the governor dropping by for a chat with his constituents. In his usual frank style, Purnama explains that working people in the area are being ripped off by local elites, and fishermen are barely scraping by. His plan is to make this right, he says, and the people present need only look to his two years governing the city to find proof of his success.

Then he makes the comment that will lead to his downfall. “So if you choose not to vote for me because of the lies of 5:51 and things like that,” he says casually, “you’re afraid of going to hell or whatever, that’s your right.” The sarcastic remark is a reference to Sura 51 of the Koran, often interpreted to forbid Muslims from taking Christians or Jews as allies. Indonesia is 87 percent Muslim, and Purnama is Christian. He is also ethnically Chinese, a minority in Indonesia with a long history of facing oppression and violence.

It was an error of a magnitude he could not have foreseen. The video quickly spread: it was copied, edited, distributed, and widely posted. Many of the posts received more than a half million views in a few days. Duplicate videos distilled Purnama’s hour-long speech to the single line, “the lies of 5:51 and things like that,” repeating it over and over, sometimes with caption text running across the bottom. A few days after the speech, Amirsyah Tambunan, the Deputy Secretary General of the Indonesian Ulema Council, which purports to guide the moral behavior

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