The ongoing trial against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for alleged blasphemy is not just a matter of religion and politics — Indonesians’ sense of honour and relationships are at stake, writes Esther Kuntjara.

The case against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy has been dragging out in the Indonesian courts since December last year. So far the trial has seen eight different hearings, which have been partially broadcast on several TV channels.

Both those who are pro and contra Ahok have also enthusiastically watched the eight trials and witness testimonies from inside and outside the court, and through social media.

Any legal trial involves norms, legal procedures, and rigid regulations, which are meant to treat everyone equally before the law. Every statement made by the judge, the lawyers, the prosecutor, witnesses and the defendant should follow the norms and regulations of the court. But sometimes even this is not enough to convey the sense of a ‘fair trial’ – as Ahok and his legal team recently found out.

The eighth trial – a hearing between Ahok’s legal team and Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) chairman Ma’ruf Amin – has provoked major public anger and backlash against Ahok. The hearing was considered legal and procedural by Ahok’s team, but improper by the followers of Ma’ruf Amin. Critics saw it as humiliating and unethical towards an honorable figure, who in Javanese tradition should be respected and not confronted or questioned.

Ma’ruf Amin, after being informed about Ahok’s speech concerning the Quranic verse al-Maidah 51, had issued a fatwa condemning the then Jakarta governor of religious defamation. Ma’ruf Amin’s role as an important figure among the Islamic community has left many wanting to know how he would defend his fatwa, and thus why the court might have the right to punish Ahok for his deed.

Born in 1943, Ma’ruf Amin came to the court looking quite frail, and sat at the witness stand for over seven hours answering questions. The testimony was not broadcast live. However, it has been reported that in the hearing, Ahok’s legal team cornered Ma’ruf Amin in to admitting that the MUI chairman was under political pressure to issue the fatwa, which labeled Ahok’s remarks as blasphemous. The hearing also seemed to confirm that Ma’ruf Amin had been influenced by former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

While the manner in which Ahok’s legal team questioned Ma’ruf Amin is nothing out of the ordinary in day-to-day courtroom practices, Indonesian lay people may not see this logic. Their head may admit that what had been done is right and proper. Their heart, however, may feel that the way in which their respected leader was interrogated, disrespected and humiliated was unjustified — never mind that Ahok’s legal team has a responsibility to dig out the truth in order to defend their client. This runs counter to the sensitivity of Javanese people who try to avoid confrontation at all cost. The shaming of an honorable person like Ma’ruf Amin is seen as unpardonable.

Ahok appeared to understand such sensitivity as he immediately issued an apology to Ma’ruf Amin, broadcast to the public the next day.

“I apologise to KH Ma’ruf Amin if I seemed to discredit him as a witness in his capacity as MUI chairman,” Ahok said. “I acknowledge that he is a Nahdlatul Ulama elder. And I respect him just like I respect other NU figures like Gus Dur and Gus Mus, whom I honor and admire as models.”

Ahok also ensured that he would not report Ma’ruf Amin to the police for his denial about receiving a call from SBY prior to the FPI demonstration against him. SBY  later admitted to having called Ma’ruf Amin.

The tension between Ahok and his team, and Ma’ruf Amin seems to have cooled down thanks to the apology and Ma’ruf Amin’s forgiveness. The head has been used to reveal what needs to be revealed. The heart has been used to maintain relationships and honour. Both are important for Indonesians.

Meanwhile, Jakarta, the rest of Indonesia and many across the world are still waiting with bated breath to see if it is justice and law that ultimately prevails.

Esther Kuntjara is Professor in Linguistics and Culture at the Faculty of Letters, Petra Christian University, Surabaya, Indonesia.