On October 22 in Garut, West Java, a member of the Barisan Ansor Serbaguna (Banser) youth movement burned a flag of Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), an organization banned in Indonesia. A short video of the incident immediately went viral and was then quickly picked up by opposition-oriented TV channels. Islamic hardliners speedily demanded that the flag burners be tried for blasphemy. Meanwhile, police arrested three people involved in the burning, but they were quickly released.

This seemingly small incident is the first shot in the use of religion, specifically accusations of blasphemy, against President Jokowi in the ongoing presidential race. It is also a challenge to the Humanitarian Islam movement and the moderation of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organization.

Banser is the militia wing of Ansor, which is NU’s young adult wing. The notion of an Islamic militia certainly sounds worrying to Westerners. But Banser is a good organization, and I have been talking with its senior leaders over the last few days. Its members are required to be unarmed and to coordinate all their actions with the police. They also guard churches in times of unrest.

Seventy thousand Banser members were traveling to Yogyakarta on 1,400 buses for the launch of an interfaith movement dedicated to counter extremism worldwide and for a celebration of national unity that was due to culminate on October 26 in a rally of 100,000, including your humble correspondent, at which Jokowi was going to speak. The members were told to expect provocations along the way and were instructed to hand over any inciting materials to the police. With the exception of the one incident in Garut, these instructions were followed.

Details are murky, but the Garut incident has the smell of a setup. Yahya Cholil Staquf, head of Ansor and general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, said that as part of a campaign of “provocation and sabotage,” Hizb ut-Tahrir personnel disrupted the youth wing’s celebrations, which then led to the flag burning incident.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in Indonesia in 2017 because of its call for an Islamic caliphate to replace the government of Indonesia. Waving its flag may even be illegal. But that flag also contains the Shahada, the Muslim confession of faith, so burning it would also involve burning a sacred text. The ambiguities of a sacred text blazoned on the flag of a banned organization open the door to demagogy.

Many were outraged by the video and accused the Banser members of blasphemy. West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil stated that he regretted the incident: “They were supposed to burn the symbol of an organization that had been banned by the government, but in my opinion, [the act] triggered a different interpretation.” The semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) criticized Banser for the incident and said it should apologize, but did not call for any punishments.

On October 26, thousands of conservative Muslims took to the streets, and there were demonstrations throughout the country demanding the flag burners be prosecuted. There were rallies at the office of the senior minister responsible for legal affairs. Many demonstrators carried the black-and-white flag and chanted the creed written on it.

Yahya Staquf told me, “Further provocations were planned and some of our members would find it difficult to control their anger in the face of flagrant exploitation of our religious symbols.” To prevent further conflict and possible violence, especially at a gathering of 100,000 people, organizers canceled the mass rally and a dinner with the sultan of Yogyakarta, who is also the provincial governor.

One of the major groups behind these demonstrations is the National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF). Its chairman, Yusuf Martak, demanded that the Ansor chairman, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, be prosecuted for the flag-burning incident. GNPF was one of the major organizers of the campaign to accuse former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) of blasphemy. Ahok lost his election and was sentenced to two years in prison.

What we are seeing now is an attempted reprise of the political manipulation of Islam, and specifically of blasphemy charges, that were used in the 2017 election for governor of Jakarta, but now at the national level. Since Jokowi was due to address the mass rally, the accusations are an attempt to taint him by association. They are also an attempt to taint NU, which will take no position on the election but whose members are often thought to be mostly Jokowi supporters, and whose former chairman of the supreme council is now Jokowi’s vice-presidential running mate.

The accusations were also a direct attempt to disrupt the Second Global Unity Forum, the Kirab Satu Negeri, an international gathering of Muslims and non-Muslims held jointly with the unity rally in order to promulgate standards for Humanitarian Islam. The Forum’s statement was drafted before the flag burning and subsequent agitprop, but it speaks directly to them in its goal to “prevent the political weaponization of Islam, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims, and to curtail the spread of communal hatred.”

The blasphemy accusations against Ahok divided the country, and those wounds are still raw. Now, the same tactics are being used again. There are nearly six months until the election on April 17, 2019, and those months will be fraught ones.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington, DC, and a contributing editor of Providence.

Photo Credit: Great Mosque Istiqlal, Jakarta, Indonesia. By Rezky Ramadhani, via Unsplash.