Thousands of Muslims rallied in several Indonesian cities on Friday to protest the burning of a banned hardline Islamic group's flag that was inscribed with a declaration of faith, police said, while organizers seeking to promote moderate Islam canceled a demonstration outside Jakarta.
There were no reports of violence during the protests, police said, as authorities deployed 7,000 security personnel, but observers said the flare up of religious fervor indicated that political Islam had started making inroads in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
“Anyone who insults shahada must be condemned and be punished for blasphemy,” protest leader Yusuf Martak told one of the rallies.
The protests came after members of Banser, a paramilitary group under the country’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, burned a black flag with a shahadah - an inscription that proclaims the Islamic faith - during a rally on Monday in Garut regency in West Java province.
Banser members said the flag belonged to Hizbut Tahrir (HTI), an outlawed Islamic group seeking to establish a caliphate in Indonesia.
The two-minute video, which went viral Monday on social media, showed unidentified men wearing Banser uniforms setting fire to the flag. Some Muslim leaders called the burning an insult because the flag, with its Islamic tenet, belonged to all the faithful.
Religious blasphemy carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison under Indonesian law.
On Friday, about 1,000 people calling themselves the National Front for the Defense of Tawhid, marched through Jakarta’s main roads while carrying black flags and chanting slogans demanding the government disband Banser.
They later picketed the coordinating ministry for political, legal and security affairs, but failed to meet Minister Wiranto who was out of town.
Protesters in Jakarta, including children and women wearing headscarves, began marching after Friday’s prayers and took turns giving speeches demanding legal action against the flag burners.
“Disband Banser, otherwise this regime of Joko Widodo is an oppressor of Muslims,” one protester shouted.
An online petition calling for the group to be disbanded garnered almost 150,000 signatures as of late Friday.
Muslims believe that the black banner with the white shahada inscription, also known as al Raya (the banner), is one of the flags flown by the Prophet Muhammad. But variants of the black banner have been used by militant groups including the Islamic State.
Similar rallies occurred place in Bandung and Ciamis in West Java province, as well as in the devoutly Muslim province of Aceh, police said.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo issued a decree in 2017 banning organizations the government deemed to threaten the country’s unity.
Hizbut Tahrir, whose members say they campaign to establish a caliphate through peaceful means, was the first organization to be banned under the decree. Critics said the ban violated the freedom of assembly guarantee in the constitution.
One of Friday’s rallies targeted the offices of Nahdlatul Ulama, the mother organization of Banser, in Central Jakarta.
Yaqut Cholil Qaumas, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama’s pro-government Ansor Youth Movement, has apologized for the uproar caused by the flag burning.
But Jafar Shodiq, deputy chairman of the Islamic Defenders’ Front, said Yaqut should be held legally responsible for the incident.
“Yaqut has to face trial,” he said, warning that his group would stage another demonstration next Friday if its demand was not met.
Jokowi’s running mate, Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, is the supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, which boasts 40 million members. Analysts said Jokowi’s pick of Ma’ruf was intended to boost his Islamic credentials.
In recent years, Middle Eastern-style Muslim garb has become much more common in Indonesia, including in Jakarta, where Muslim groups held protests focused on blasphemy in 2016 and 2017 against former Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian.
Ahok was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison after an edited video made it appear like he was saying that the Quran deceived people.
Meanwhile, Nahdlatul Ulama’s youth wing cancelled a unity rally planned for Friday in the city of Yogyakarta, southeast of the capital Jakarta, over fears of clashes with people angered by the flag burning.
Organizers had hoped 100,000 people would attend the rally.
“We want to prevent clashes and provocations,” organizer Abdul Rohman said.
On Wednesday, Widodo called on police to investigate the incident. Police have detained three Banser members and a man who carried the flag linked to HTI.
Kusumasari Ayuningtyas in Yogyakarta contributed to this report.