JAKARTA - Far-right Islamic parties were the driving force behind a massive religious demonstration Friday against Jakarta's governor, but those weren't the only interests represented among protesters. Hundreds of residents of poor neighborhoods like Luar Batang and Pasar Ikan, where the governor has pushed for massive evictions, also showed up in solidarity.

The rally was the second major protest against the governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian who has been accused of blasphemy. More than 200,000 protesters showed up for the demonstration convened by the right-wing Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) party, and they were joined by Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, who made a surprise visit and urged the crowds to remain peaceful.  

Indonesian Muslims gather during a rally against J
Indonesian Muslims gather during a rally against Jakarta's minority Christian Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama who is being prosecuted for blasphemy, at the National Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 2, 2016.

Many of those who gathered are upset over Ahok’s aggressive eviction policies in North Jakarta. Development in the area, which abuts the waterfront and has a scenic old town and harbor, has affected more than 16,000 residents.

His administration hopes to turn Luar Batang, which has a historic mosque, into a religious site, and Pasar Ikan, which means “fish market,” into a tourist area. They say the neighborhoods are unsuitable for residences because of frequent flooding and rising ocean levels.

Less than one-third of affected residents has been offered alternative accommodations, according to the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation. And those who have are reluctant to leave for crumbling apartments in North and East Jakarta, far from their families and hyperlocal economies.

FPI’s opportunism

It’s no accident that residents of these neighborhoods were easily able to mobilize mass protests. As soon as the government threatened to evict about 1,000 Luar Batang residents in April 2016, FPI set up a charity operation there. They supplied food and clothing to potential eviction victims for three months, and when they closed shop in June, they had accrued strong ideological support from local citizens.

“I’ve studied FPI for over a decade and they have no particular interest in poverty, social justice, or land rights,” said Ian Wilson, who researches Indonesian politics at Murdoch University in Australia. “I think they just saw a good opportunity to exploit popular support.” People who live in evicted neighborhoods share a common enemy with FPI, which opposes Ahok for his ethnicity and liberalism. “What is surprising to me, though, is how fast young people in these neighborhoods have become sucked into FPI ideology, especially on social media. It’s their frame of discourse now, including the racist, sexist, and reactionary logic of FPI dogma."

"FPI’s support has been immense," said Mansur Amin, secretary of the Luar Batang mosque and a longtime resident. "When people were threatened with eviction, for a month, three times a day, FPI provided them with food, milk, volunteers, and other provisions. This adds up to more than 100 million rupiahs. FPI did this continuously, silently, and without exposing themselves to the media. It was done sincerely and full of goodwill." Although Amin could not attend Friday's rally for medical reasons, he enthusiastically went on November 4, and said hundreds of his friends in the neighborhood went again today.

No one in Luar Batang has been evicted yet; the effort has been stalled due to complications in the low-cost apartments where residents are to resettle; but, if and when the time comes, they are ready to fight. And they have a powerful mouthpiece in FPI.

An ambitious lawsuit

“The demo today was great: peaceful, timely, and orderly,” said Dharma Dhiani, a Pasar Ikan resident and neighborhood activist. “We simply demanded that the blasphemer and law-breaker is treated according to the existing laws;” but, she, and her neighborhood, aren’t pinning their hopes for their homes just on protests or regime change. The rally was sort of a cathartic break amidst a seven-month-long class action lawsuit levied by the entire neighborhood of Pasar Ikan on the city of Jakarta for wrongful eviction.

Thousands of Muslims gather during a protest again
Thousands of Muslims gather during a protest against Jakarta's minority Christian Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama who is being prosecuted for blasphemy, at the National Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016.

“We’re hoping that the court finds that the provincial government is wrong, and we’re also seeking [monetary] liabilities on forced evictions cases in Pasar Ikan,” said Matthew Lengu, a lawyer with the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute who is overseeing the case. There are 320 residents named in the lawsuit and Dhiani is a lead plaintiff. More than 100 residents showed up at a hearing at the Jakarta state court on November 24, waiting over four hours, but the judge heard them for just a few minutes before pointing out paperwork issues and suggesting that they return in two weeks. This type of stalling is a classic technique of Jakarta courts, said Ian Wilson.

Although the defendants’ chance of absolute success is “close to zero,” according to Wilson, they may yet win some useful concessions like getting the government to rebuild destroyed houses.

Dhiani, who has four school-age children, is still defiantly squatting in her one-room house, just steps from Jakarta’s famous Sunda Kelapa harbor. Its tin roof is full of holes and whenever it rains, which is every day, the house slightly floods. She’s lived there for 21 years.

Overlooked lower class

“We don’t care about Ahok’s religion or ethnicity; it’s his policies that are ruining our lives,” said Dhiani. “We are not racist. In fact, one of the lawyers on our case is Chinese!”

The same refrain was heard all through Luar Batang and Pasar Ikan, which are separated by a narrow strait of water. They’ve lived here for 30, 40 years, they said. And the new apartments, where about one-third of Pasar Ikan residents have resettled, are by many accounts sub par, with dirty water and cramped quarters.

These people’s alignment with FPI is understandable, although not inevitable. What transpired is analogous to what has happened with similar working-class concerns across the globe. The majority party serves, or is perceived to serve, middle-class and global interests, and radical parties or politicians give voice to the marginalized poor. In Indonesia’s case, two sentiments that many believe have been sidelined under the current administration, fundamentalist Islam and poor people’s land rights, amplified each other's concerns.

The best case scenario of the lawsuit and for these neighborhoods at large depends on who wins the gubernatorial election in February. “Two months ago, I felt Ahok had it on lock, but it’s conceivable that he could lose next year,” said Wilson. It wouldn’t be the only surprising election result this year.

There are no easy solutions. Ahok remains quite popular, these coastal neighborhoods will eventually become unlivable due to climate change, and it’s true that Jakarta’s tourist infrastructure needs extensive development; but, for these residents today, it’s better to protest robustly than submit to a poorly thought-out eviction regimen.

“I mean, look around this place,” said Dhiani, after we walked through the flimsy houses, tents, ad hoc mosque, and piles of rubble that make up Pasar Ikan. “Doesn’t it make you sad? It makes me very sad.”