Banning Islamic Defenders Front: Overdue yet Overreaching

Commentary by Alif Satria
2021-01-08
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Banning Islamic Defenders Front: Overdue yet Overreaching Supporters of FPI leader Rizieq Shihab protest outside police headquarters in Bandung, Indonesia after six of their members were killed by police in Jakarta, Dec. 15, 2020.
AFP

Indonesia’s ban on the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) is the latest in a string of long-overdue efforts to curb the power of a group viewed as a catalyst of rising intolerance in the country.

The new stronger stance against FPI – although welcome – may not reduce its socio-political influence; on the contrary, the ban may further radicalize key FPI supporters. Moreover, the move is part of a worrying trend of the executive unilaterally banning civil society organizations.

Through a joint ministerial decree in late December, the Indonesian government announced it was formally banning the FPI, saying that the organization had failed to renew its registration permit and thus had no legal grounds to operate.

FPI’s permit had lapsed after it refused to comply with the government’s requirement that it drop from its charter language supporting “implementation of Islamic sharia” under a “prophetic caliphate (khilafah nubuwwah)” – concepts deemed contradictory to Indonesia’s state ideology of Pancasila.

The ban follows other unprecedentedly strict government responses to FPI activities. In mid-November, FPI’s firebrand leader, Rizieq Shihab, was named a suspect for allegedly breaking coronavirus restrictions after he held a series of events and sermons, which drew thousands of people.

In early December, the police shot dead six FPI members in an altercation after a tip claimed the members were helping Rizieq to evade police questioning. A week later, Rizieq handed himself over to the police for questioning and is currently in custody.

Overdue

The government’s stronger stance towards FPI activities in late 2020 is an important development for Indonesia. It signals a reversal in the trend of governmental lenience toward unlawful and intolerant FPI behaviors. For the past two decades, the FPI has helped foment rising religious intolerance in Indonesia.

In the early 2000s, this largely manifested in its violent, unlawful raids on food stalls that were open during Ramadan. Later that decade, FPI began leveraging its Islamic credentials to mobilize huge crowds to press local governments into banning Islamic sects and limiting the activities of religious minorities.

In 2011, FPI in Sampang, East Java mobilized masses to call for the expulsion of Shia Muslims, while threatening to attack the community if local officials did not comply.

During the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, FPI leader Rizieq became the leading face of demonstrations calling for the incumbent Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese-Christian, to be jailed for blasphemy and for Muslims to vote against the “infidel.”

In some regions, FPI branches have also become conveyor belts to terrorist organizations. For instance, FPI’s branch in Lamongan, East Java has been a key supporter of the pro-Islamic State cleric Aman Abdurrahman.

It even merged with several other groups in 2015 to form the Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) – one of the most active terrorist organizations in Indonesia today. Although FPI Lamongan is an outlier, it is an example of the potential risk of FPI’s rhetoric if taken to the extreme.

Yet the Indonesian government has been relatively lenient toward FPI for the past two decades. Partly due to FPI’s perceived ability to mobilize local voters, and partly due to its close ties with individual military and police officers, FPI has continued to operate with a significant degree of impunity.

Police officers stood by when FPI mobilized masses to burn Shiite houses in Sampang, and local politicians failed to openly object when its ulamas espoused intolerant views in their 2017 demonstrations. Some even supported the anti-Ahok movement.

Overreaching

While the ban marks an overdue reversal of government lenience to FPI, it alone will not effectively curb FPI leaders’ ability to mobilize masses and influence politics.

This is primarily because, apart from its attention-grabbing raids and demonstrations, FPI has conducted years of disaster relief and poverty alleviation programs. It has also co-opted anti-establishment grievances into its sermons to poor urban communities, which have borne the brunt of government’s socio-economic policies.

Consequently, for many of its supporters, the FPI is a legitimate channel for pushing back against a system that they see having marginalized them. Many of participants in the 2017 demonstrations against Ahok took part not just for religious reasons, but to protest the city’s forced-eviction policies.

Moreover, many of FPI’s ulamas now carry socio-political capital that transcends organizational affiliations. This capital exists not only because of their status as ulamas – a status that many people in Indonesia still revere – but because of years of alliance-building and patronage from local political elites.

The quid-pro-quo politics between FPI ulamas and local politicians during the past 20 years has resulted in personal and professional rapport, which will endure even if FPI is banned.

More important, Indonesia’s crackdown on FPI should also be viewed with caution. Not only is the recent shooting of FPI members a cause for concern over alleged excessive use of force by police, the event also plays into the anti-establishment narrative that FPI has cultivated over the past two decades.

In particular, it supports FPI’s claim that the government has continued to persecute and marginalize ulamas, the true vanguard of Islam in Indonesia. As a result, while the crackdown may dissuade some people from supporting FPI, it may radicalize others – giving them a perceived justification to use more violent means and rhetoric.

Additionally, Indonesia’s ban of FPI continues a concerning trend of the executive cracking down on civil society organizations. In 2017, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration issued a regulation – later signed into law by parliament – allowing the executive to ban civil society organizations, without due process in court, when they are deemed to have ideologies or to have taken actions that contradict Pancasila.

At the time, the law was used to ban Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a non-violent Islamic organization that openly called for creation of an Islamic caliphate. The law was used again as a basis for the joint ministerial decree that formally banned FPI – in an unhealthy erosion of checks and balances in Indonesia’s democracy.

Moving Forward

There is no quick fix to addressing unlawful Islamist organizations in Indonesia.

The government cannot merely rely on bans and aggressive police operations to uproot organizations that base their social capital on local grievances and the patronage of political elites. To address the FPI, the Indonesian government needs to do the hard work of countering its ideologies and rhetoric, and address the legitimate grievances of FPI’s supporting communities.

These tasks loom alongside another notable development – the release of Jemaah Islamiyah’s former leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, from prison on Jan. 8. Bashir was freed d after serving the bulk of the 15-year sentence he received for funding a terrorist training campaign in Aceh in 2011.

Although his notoriety has weakened, Bashir is still widely revered as a long-term presence in Indonesia’s terrorism landscape. Now, the reemergence of Bashir into public life is cause for concern. His consistent refusal to denounce the need for an Islamic caliphate and pledge loyalty to the Republic of Indonesia signals that the just released cleric is far from deradicalized.

Alif Satria holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program in Washington. His research focuses on terrorism and political violence in Southeast Asia. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of Georgetown University or BenarNews.

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