Small nail, big hammer

Jan 5, 2021

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a leader prone to blunders (he initially took the Trump no-worries approach to Covid-19 now ravaging the Republic), may have made another serious error. He’s banned a Muslim organisation that’s become the loudest and most militant critic of his government.

By making it illegal to belong to the Front Pembela Islam (FPI – Islamic Defenders’ Front} and join its activities has given the shambolic wackadoos the chance to find common purpose and gain credibility.

If the democratically elected government is so frightened of a rabble with an estimated 200,000 followers that it needs to banish it into the shadows to brew hate, then it seems Widodo is running scared.

Instead of using a prominent Muslim cleric to publicly confront the FPI and demolish its vile teachings with better interpretations of Islam, the government has chosen to strike using the secular mallet of the law.

The person best qualified to challenge the FPI is vice president Ma’ruf Amin. The high-standing Islamic scholar was picked as Widodo’s running mate in the 2019 election to offset the scuttlebutt that his boss isn’t a fair dinkum Muslim. Instead, he’s said to be a Javanese Abangan, a follower of a milder, more accepting form of the faith recognising local pre-Islamic beliefs.

However, Amin, 77, has so far used his office more as a sinecure than a platform to disabuse the radicals’ line that the administration has lost its moral compass by, among other sins, encouraging Chinese investment.

As reported in this column, the FPI was formed late last century– allegedly with the help of the military – after the fall of the Republic’s strongman president, General Soeharto. During his 32-year authoritarian rule any spark of religious militancy was crushed by army boots.

Some leaders fled to the Middle East or Malaysia where they covertly stayed in touch with supporters plotting the introduction of Sharia (Islamic) law. In the chaos following the 1998 economic crisis, student-led riots against the corrupt regime and resignation of Soeharto, the demagogues slipped back to their homeland and roused the rabble.

One of the most notorious returnees was cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the militant Jemaah Islamiyah (JI – Islamic congregation). Its gangs were responsible for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing which killed 202, including 88 Australian holidaymakers.

Now 82, Ba’asyir remains in jail after being convicted of inciting violence and plotting terror.

JI has been proscribed in Indonesia since 2008. It’s one of 27 organisations forbidden in Australia. According to Australian National Security: ‘JI remains a threat to the region. JI continues to exist as a functional terrorist organisation and remains committed to its long-term strategy to overthrow the Indonesian Government and establish a pan-Islamic state in South-East Asia—through violence if necessary.’

The FPI is a separate swarm, but its younger leader Rizieq Shihab, 55, has filled the vacant post of hardline frothy-mouthed demagogue. For the past three years he’s been in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia, returning to Jakarta on 10 November to such riotous applause that roads to the international airport were closed for several hours.

Countries which outlaw ‘illegal’ (meaning unregistered) organisations – as Indonesia has with the FPI – justify their actions with slippery phrases like ‘disturb public order and national security.’

Indonesia’s new catch-all law lists ‘activities that were in violation of the law such as violence, sweeping (raids on homes and businesses), incitement and other matters.’ But the likelihood that the FPI hoons will not regroup under another name or give up because a law has been proclaimed is fanciful.

Writing in The Conversation academics Lee Jarvis from East Anglia Uni, and Tim Legrand from the ANU, claimed debarring is ‘more political symbolism than effective counter-terrorism.

‘This scepticism dovetails with the work of other researchers … who doubt that contemporary terrorist groups are appropriate targets for listing because they tend not to exist as coherent organisations with a fixed identity and an identifiable membership.’

Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid said the law ‘has the potential to discriminate against and violate the right of association, and will further undermine civil freedoms in Indonesia.’

Banning may sometimes be necessary to control immovable extremists. But it’s also the favourite tool of tyrannical governments and often used against mild critics whose only weapons are reason and facts.

The blacklisting follows the police killing six FPI members on a toll road near Jakarta last month and then arresting Shihab on charges of breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules by encouraging mass rallies. The government has rejected calls by NGOs for an inquiry into the shootings.

Days later the police said they’d discovered a JI military-style training centre in Central Java. Separately they arrested two JI leaders allegedly involved in the Bali bombing after 18 years on the run. By now the populace was well prepared to accept a ban on the FPI.

Christmas in Indonesia sometimes excites zealots to try their hand at bomb-throwing. This year targets were few as the coronavirus closed churches, though a building in Sigi, Central Sulawesi was torched. Local families claimed it was their church where they gathered to pray; authorities countered it wasn’t a ‘house of worship’ but a ‘service post’.

The Indonesian Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of worship, though the legislature has decreed citizens must follow one of six approved religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

There are scores of other ancient faiths which the government labels traditional practices. Endy Bayuni, a senior editor at The Jakarta Post and executive director of the International Association of Religion Journalists wrote that minority faith communities have lived in constant fear of persecution this century.

‘The fate of the followers of Ahmadiyah (a messianic movement) and Shi ism (the branch of Islam dominant in Iran, Bahrain and Iraq) illustrates Indonesia’s failings in protecting freedom of religion or belief for everyone. Thousands of their followers have been lingering in shelters, unable to go home, others are facing harassment.’

The peak non-government authority Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI – Islamic Scholars’ Council) has declared Ahmadiyah and Shi ism ‘deviant’ giving the FPI mobs an excuse to attack.

In a Cabinet reshuffle at the end of December Widodo announced a new Minister for Religious Affairs.

Yaqut Cholil Qoumas is a former chairman of Ansor, the 800,000-strong youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Islamic mass organization. Ansor’s militia wing Banser sometimes musters its green-uniformed gangs to protect churches. (The FPI militias wear white.)

Banser weren’t always the good guys; in the mid 60s they helped massacre thousands of real or imagined Communists after the coup which brought Soeharto to power.

Qoumas promised he’d protect minorities but within a day he copped a blast from conservative Muslim leaders. He then said there’d be no special treatment.

‘No one is really asking for special treatment,’ wrote Bayuni. ‘If only he (Qoumas) could protect all religions, particularly religious minorities, against harassment and outright persecution, which would be sufficient.

‘This is hardly a picture that Indonesia wants to convey to the world. The nation of 270 million people takes pride in its diversity of all kinds, from race, ethnicity and culture to tradition, language and religion.

‘Living up to the spirit of the state motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) however, has become more challenging now with the increasing use of religion as a political identity that encourages religious intolerance.’

At his swearing-in, Qoumas said he wanted to ‘turn religion into an inspiration, not an aspiration’. With others bent on wrath, the minister will be praying for wisdom.

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