A massive demonstration by tens of thousands of Indonesian Muslims against Jakarta’s governor turned ugly Friday as hardliners burned police cars and clashed with officers, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.
The ugly scenes — just meters from the presidential palace — marred an otherwise peaceful rally against Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian accused of insulting Islam.
Police had earlier declared the much-hyped demonstration against Purnama, in which 50,000 protestors gathered at Jakarta’s biggest mosque, the Istiqlal, and then marched through the city’s main streets to the city hall and the nearby presidential palace in a huge show of force — a largely peaceful affair.
Authorities took no chances in the lead up to the protest, deploying 18,000 officers and extra soldiers across Jakarta amid fears that radical elements could infiltrate the march.
The crowd, many wearing white shirts and white skull caps signaling Islamic piety, chanted slogans criticizing Purnama and waved banners calling for the governor’s arrest.
The demonstration appeared to be dying down by dusk as thousands began leaving the protest zone around city hall, the presidential palace and national monument.
The crowd sought to meet President Joko Widodo to demand that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama be prosecuted over remarks he made in September that some Muslims consider blasphemous.
In a video that made rounds on the internet last month, Purnama said his opponents in next year’s gubernatorial election had used a verse in the Koran to deceive voters and prevent him from winning another term.
The text in question is Surah Al-Mai’dah verse 51, which many Muslims in Indonesia interpret as prohibiting them from electing non-Muslims as their leaders.
The protest was triggered by accusations that Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, insulted Islam by criticizing opponents who used Koranic references to attack him ahead of an election in February.
Purnama apologized for the remarks, but his opponents have built a groundswell of support calling for his arrest and incarceration under Indonesia’s tough blasphemy laws.
“It’s no wonder people arise. Why when it comes to Ahok is the law not upheld?” deputy house speaker Fahri Hamzah, a prominent politician from an Islamic political party, told demonstrators earlier Friday.
Anger at Purnama, Jakarta’s second Christian governor and the first from the country’s ethnic Chinese community, spread beyond the capital, with solidarity marches also held across Java and in cities as far away as Makassar in Indonesia’s east.
The military warned it was ready to back police if things turned ugly, with helicopters flying low over the city and extra soldiers stationed at key government buildings reinforced with razor wire and armored vehicles.
Some foreign embassies warned their citizens to steer clear of the demonstration.
President Joko Widodo met this week with religious and political leaders to issue a unified call against violence while police sought to ease tensions by holding prayer sessions and broadcasting calls for peace on social media.
Indonesia is home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, where a vast majority practice a moderate form of Islam.
But the governor stoked religious tensions in September when he told a crowd they’d been “deceived” by his opponents who had used a Koranic verse to try to put them off voting for a Christian.
The governor — known for his tough-talking style — is hugely popular in other quarters for his determination to clean up Jakarta, an overcrowded, disorganized and polluted metropolis.
Purnama became Jakarta governor in November 2014, but was not elected to the post. He was deputy governor and automatically became governor after incumbent Widodo was elected Indonesian president.