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Secular revenge in Indonesia

Asia Times - February 24, 2012

Megawati Wijaya, Jakarta Since its founding in 1998, hardline vigilante group the Islamic Defenders Front (known by its Indonesian acronym FPI) has perpetuated violence in the name of Islamic morality. Now, Indonesians are calling for an end to the intimidation and intolerance, signaling growing rejection of the group's and its supporters' radical religious ideology.

Palangka Raya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, was in the national headlines two weeks ago when its residents stopped FPI leaders from landing at the town's airport. Four FPI leaders had flown there to officiate the opening of a new provincial FPI branch but in an act of defiance a crowd of about 800 people staged a protest.

A few hundred, mainly indigenous Dayak people, forced their way onto the airport's apron and runway to confront the FPI officials. Protesters dispersed only when airport officials convinced them that the FPI members would remain on board the plane and would travel on to another destination.

Local people said they feared FPI's presence could destabilize the province, where the Muslim majority shares religious space with Christians, Hindus and native animists, said Lucas Tinke, a Dayak tribal spokesman involved in the protest.

In Jakarta, the national capital, hundreds of Indonesians, including civil activists, students and professionals, staged their own anti-FPI protests. The demonstration was peaceful until three men, later identified as FPI members, grabbed a banner and beat one of the demonstrators. The case is now under police investigation.

The anti-FPI movement spread to Surabaya, another major metropolitan area where people referring to themselves as "Surabaya Residents Against Violence" held a similar rally on February 17. Although the group did not specifically refer to the FPI in its addresses promoting non-violence, yells of "Indonesia without FPI, Indonesia without violence" could be heard from the gathered mass, according to local press reports.

Radical agenda

FPI was founded in 1998 by Saudi Arabia-educated Islamic leader Muhammad Rizieq Syihab in the wake of former strongman Suharto's downfall. Whereas radical Islamic groups were stifled under Suharto's 32-year authoritarian rule, FPI has exploited the country's new democratic space to push for the implementation of Islamic Shariah laws and challenge secular traditions. The group's members have often openly advocated the use of violence to push its hardline Islamic agenda.

From its stronghold in Central Java, FPI has quickly spread through a branch network to other parts of the archipelago. There are currently an estimated 5,000-6,000 committed FPI members around the country. FPI claims that its funding solely comes from its members, which include religious leaders and businessmen who share its radical ideology.

FPI has been held responsible for hundreds of violent incidents, including destructive attacks on entities considered in violation of Islamic values such as bars, brothels, massage parlors and gambling halls. Every year, FPI carries out raids on restaurants that operate during the Ramadan Muslim fasting season, forcing them shut while terrorizing their owners.

FPI has also directly targeted minority religious groups. For instance, FPI members have frequently interrupted prayer services in Christian churches and assaulted adherents of the Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic group. There are also records of FPI attacking ethnic and sexual minority groups, including Indonesian Chinese-owned shops, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual groups. In the past two years, the FPI has been responsible for 34 serious breaches of laws across five different provinces, according to the police spokesman Saud Usman Nasution.

Notwithstanding those incidents, FPI exists more as a destabilizing influence than a serious security threat due to its lack of conventional weaponry and limited number of paramilitary members, according to a recent report by Jane's Defense. A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on hardline groups in Indonesia referred to FPI as an "urban thug organization".

Despite FPI's regular and well-documented abuses, police seldom act against the group. ICG noted that the group has backing from the military and police generals, including former armed commander General Wiranto. FPI is seen by security officials as a useful "attack dog" for various purposes, ICG said.

US diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks claim that FPI receives funding from the police, including from Sutanto, former police head who now leads the Indonesian intelligence agency BIN. He reportedly stopped his funding activities after FPI attacked the US Embassy in Jakarta in February 2006 to protest the publication of cartoons in US media that depicted the Prophet Muhammad.

In a speech in Central Sulawesi in 2006, FPI leader Rizieq Shihab said the FPI and the police were "like husband and wife", both committed to upholding public order. "Whoever has money can hire FPI for political purposes, but no one outside FPI can control Habib Rizieq, who remains boss to himself," a US diplomatic cable said.

FPI has more recently denied the US cables' allegations and insists that it's self-funded with donations from its own members. "FPI never receives funds from anywhere else, neither the government, the military, the police, or businessmen. All funds come from our own pockets," FPI Jakarta head Salim Alatas recently said.

Grassroots defiance

Last week's organized opposition to FPI represented the first major public defiance against the radical group. No individual or group had previously openly challenged FPI, due mainly to fear of violent reprisal and the risk of crossing unknown powerful members of government and the security forces.

The only high-profile anti-FPI case occurred last year when a group of housewives in Medan, North Sumatra, vandalized the car of Darma Bakti Ginting, FPI's provincial head. Ginting and his FPI supporters had earlier torn down a local resident's house that had allegedly been built on his land. Some analysts believe that grass roots resistance served as motivation for the recent protests.

"Resentment against violence that is often employed by the FPI is already widespread in society," claims Noor Huda Ismail, a terrorism expert at the Institute of International Peace Building, a local organization that works to rehabilitate former Islamic radicals. "But this time, the silent majority are capable of reaching to the megaphone and extend their anti-violence, anti-FPI message to the wider public," he said.

Before last week's rallies, Indonesian authorities had handled the FPI mainly with kid gloves. Last year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called for mass organizations to adhere to the law or risk disbandment but refused to mention names.

"Organizations in Indonesia are allowed to operate on the basis of freedom of speech and freedom of action," he said. "[But] any organization that violates the laws must face due legal process, with no exceptions," he said.

In response to that vague statement, FPI threatened to overthrow Yudhoyono's government if he "dares to disband mass organizations, including the FPI".

"FPI will be like Ben Ali [Tunisian leader who led a bloodless coup d'etat in 1987] and Indonesia will become Egypt. We will activate the mass to overthrow [the president] for diverting issues," FPI spokesman Munarman said at the time.

Belated response

There are signs the government's position may be hardening. After last week's anti-FPI rallies, home affairs minister Gamawan Fauzi said he would not hesitate to freeze mass organizations that disturbed public order. "If they keep on breaking the law we will certainly freeze them in accordance with the 1985 Law on Mass Organizations," he said.

That law stipulates that a mass organization can be suspended if it has received at least two warning letters from the ministry. FPI was most recently warned after it vandalized the home ministry's offices in Jakarta last month during a protest against a decision to revise several regional bylaws restricting the sale and distribution of alcohol.

During a visit to the Religious Affairs Ministry last week, Shihab said that FPI would fight for justice and corruption eradication only through peaceful means. "The [attack on] Home Ministry and various other incidents are no longer the group's hallmark. FPI has left that paradigm," he was quoted as saying by the Antara news agency.

Momentum is also building against the group among more moderate religious leaders. A recent gathering of Islamic scholars in Karawang, West Java province, urged the government to disband the FPI, saying the group's violent tendencies are not reflective of how Muslims should behave. Mass Muslim organizations, such as the Nadlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, both of which have tens of millions of members, have consistently distanced themselves from FPI.

It is not clear, however, that disbandment would uproot the radical Islamic sentiment FPI has tapped and mobilized, analysts say. "Radical groups such as the FPI have very strong ideologies disbanding one will only bring out splinter groups," said Ismail. "Compared to NGOs or civil activists that have higher turnover or whose activities depend on availability of funding, the former would have stronger stamina to survive," Ismail said.

"FPI can easily find sympathizers because it is strongly against things that are considered sinful by many Indonesians such as prostitution or gambling," he said. "FPI's consistent message calling for a clean government that is free of corruption is especially attractive when the people think they can't trust the existing government."

[Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at megawati.wijaya@gmail.com.]

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