Morality racketeering’ is Australian academic Dr Ian Wilson’s shorthand for Indonesian white-clad mobsters who dress in religious righteousness to terrorise their animus-du-jour. Last century it was vice. More recently it’s been blasphemers. Now it’s the government of President Joko Widodo.
An Australian supporter of the ultra-nationalist group Front Pembela Islam (FPI – Islamic Defenders’ Front) explained to TV news this month why he and a few friends were backing the FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, 55, a man who’s no Santa Claus.
They said Widodo had neutered opposition through political alliances. This left the FPI and its incendiary preacher as the only voice offering alternative policies.
Unfortunately, that voice is hate-filled. If there are plans worthy of being called policies, they’re rooted in sinophobia. The signs are subtle, more dog whistles than shouts according to another Australian scholar, Dr Quinton Temby based at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Keywords in the FPI’s rhetoric include naga, the symbol of a dragon, cacing (worm) and zalim (aka zulm) Arabic for cruelty, exploitation and oppression. All are linked to China and Communism.
Readers who remember Vietnam War propaganda would recognise the images – a loathsome red creepy-crawly, jaws agape, slithering towards the motherland.
Shihab likes to strike demagogue poses and call himself the Imam Besar (Grand Cleric) descended from the Prophet Muhammad through his ancestors who brought Islam to Indonesia.
Critics have publicly called him a thug, but his claims suggest the man’s also a charlatan. The Prophet, who died in 632 is supposed to have had 13 wives but only two children. Islam arrived in Java in the 14th century, popularly through the Walisongo, or nine saints of Islam.
As there are few written records Shihab’s ancestry can’t be proved, but as Donald Trump knows, the more outrageous the notion the more likely to be accepted by the gullible.
How many believers are hard to know. Temby has taken a stab at 200,000 which is big by Australian standards but tiny in the Republic. The mainstream Islamic organisations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah together claim membership of 120 million.
As we know, one determined zealot can still do enormous damage, though the FPI’s energies are currently directed to social media manipulation rather than bomb-making.
The FPI made a major mistake when it switched targets from boozing foreigners and the unwed in bed to the government. This enemy has a police force with lots of guns which were used to kill six of Shihab’s ten ‘bodyguards’ on a capital toll road in the early hours of 7 December.
The police said they had to defend themselves against armed men, but Shihab says his supporters had no weapons. Guns are rare in Indonesia’s underworld. So far no independent witnesses have come forward, but the cops’ version looks, suspect.
The government has certainly sent a late no-tolerance message, reinforced by the arrest of Shihab for allegedly breaching coronavirus rules on wearing masks and social distancing.
When the preacher returned to Jakarta from three years self-exile in Saudi Arabia on 10 November he was met by a huge mob which ignored lockdown laws.
The crowds caught the Widodo government by surprise. How could ministers not have known about the flight and planned welcome? Either the State’s ‘intelligence’ service was dozing, or they knew and wanted the FPI to incriminate itself. Widodo sacked two senior cops and their replacements are cracking knuckles.
Another sinister theory going the rounds is that Shihab’s return was arranged by the FPI’s political paymasters playing a long game to discredit Widodo. Like Trump’s election fraud accusations, no one is producing evidence.
Naturally, the FPI is playing the victim and promoting the six dead men as martyrs who died for the cause of ‘moral revolution’. This sounds fine unless a definition is sought. For the FPI it means making the population live under sharia (Islamic law) and the suppression of ‘minorities’.
This is another code for ethnic Chinese. Most are Christian and probably total less than ten million. That’s about one in every 30 citizens, though their economic clout is far greater.
Some families have been in the archipelago for three centuries and helped fight Communism after the 1965 coup. But that doesn’t disturb the radicals who only see foreigners taking local jobs on Widodo’s infrastructure projects powered by Chinese loans. Jakarta’s debt to Beijing exceeds AUD 23.5 billion.
Its vaccine diplomacy should ensure millions get protected with the Sinovac jab. Doses are already in the country and will be delivered free if approved. That should encourage citizens to think favourably towards the donor – but few forget they’re also atheists persecuting Uyghur Muslims.
The FPI has called for citizens to boycott Chinese shops and goods. If that happened the populace would go hungry, have to quit fags and buying smartphones.
So far China hasn’t retaliated. Instead, coal exports have been increased to replace imports from Australia. But if its citizens are physically attacked it could withdraw its engineers and throw the massive road and rail upgrades into chaos.
Widodo’s government is in a bind. Sinophobia is always bubbling beneath the surface. The last big outbreak of violence in 1998 took the lives of more than a 1,000 shopkeepers and looters.
Anyone offering a sane commentary runs the risk of being painted Red – a straight lift from George W Bush’s ‘for us or against us’ reductionist lunacy as the ideology has been banned for the past 55 years and shows no sign of germinating.
It’s difficult to know if the FPI is affiliated with the extremist Jemaah Islamiah (Islamic congregation). The government is trying to persuade citizens that Shihab’s mob is a terrorist group and should be black-listed for spruiking violence – including the beheading of blasphemers.
Human rights activists are also conflicted fearing a ban on one outfit threatening the government will lead to further action against peaceful and rational critics – which is already happening.
The police say they’ve recently arrested 23 JI members including two prize targets – Taufik Bulaga and Zulkarnaen – suspects in the 2002 Bali bombings, in which 202 died, including 88 Australians. The men were also allegedly involved in the 2004 one-tonne suicide bomb hit on the Australian embassy. Nine died – all Indonesians. About 150 were injured.
This Christmas and New Year the police are expected to be ramping patrols around churches, a standard precaution every twelvemonth.
Any outrage during the season of goodwill is likely to further frighten the Western investors Widodo so badly needs to balance the Renminbi’s influence.