TIM LINDSEY. Jokowi’s dilemma: turning Islamists into civil rights heroes?

Jul 28, 2017

Indonesia’s emergency law, enacted in response to the growing disruptive influence of Islamist hard-liners, could be a blow to the open, liberal democracy that Indonesian reformers have been trying to build ever since the fall of Soeharto in 1998. And it has the ironic result of forcing civil society groups that are usually against the hard-liners into their camp.

On 10 July, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia (Jokowi) issued a controversial new emergency law amending the 2013 Law on Social Organisations. It grants wide new powers to the minister for law and human rights to ban any organisation believed to oppose the national ideology, the Pancasila (five principles), or national unity. To do so, it removes judicial review requirements and other checks and balances in the 2013 Law that were intended to protect civil society.

The emergency law (or Perppu: Regulation in Lieu of Law) seems to have been introduced to let the government quickly close down Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), just as Wiranto, the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security, promised in May this year. Just over a week after the emergency law was introduced, the government announced on 19 July that it was revoking HTI’s legal status as an organisation. HTI is an ultra-conservative Islamist group that officially disavows violence but is committed to establishing a caliphate

The new emergency law seems to be a long-delayed move against the Islamist hard-liners who are a rising political force in Indonesia. Over the last 18 months, a range of hard-liner groups have led a noisy campaign against Jokowi’s friend and close political ally, Ahok, the former governor of Jakarta. Bringing hundreds of thousands out on to the streets of Jakarta, they demanded Ahok’s political destruction. He is now languishing in prison, jailed for two years on spurious blasphemy charges.

HTI seems an odd choice for proscription, because there are many other Islamist groups that have been much more active, effective and violent, and which played a more important role in the attacks on Ahok. These include the notorious vigilante group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). Some even targeted the president, at times calling for a march on the palace, his overthrow and even a ‘revolution’.

There was never any real chance of this happening but Jokowi could do nothing to save Ahok, and was left looking weak and ineffectual. Australians will recall that it was a massive anti-Ahok rally last year that forced Jokowi to cancel his state visit to Australia at the eleventh hour, reflecting the fact that large, out-of control mobs on the streets are the nightmare of all Indonesian politicians.

This means that it was always likely that Jokowi’s administration would eventually move against the Islamists and the timing is now right. With the ethnic Chinese and Christian Ahok ruined, the hard-liners have lost the trigger that enabled them to mobilise such huge numbers.  The emergency law is aimed at HTI, but its banning will probably only be a test run for moves against the more violent organisations that led the campaign against Ahok, such as FPI.

The question is whether the emergency law was the right way to do this – or even necessary at all. After all, arrests and prosecutions of senior hard-liner leaders for a range of charges, including sedition and pornography, have already been effective in dampening activism, and Rizieq Shihab, the head of FPI, is now a fugitive in Saudi Arabia.

Yes, the emergency law would make it much easier for Jokowi’s government to ban Islamist groups in the future but it could create as many problems as it solves. It could even prove to be a real blow to the open, liberal democracy that Indonesian reformers have been trying to build ever since Soeharto fell in 1998.

The repressive legal mechanisms of the New Order – including tight restrictions on social organisations – silenced many civil society groups, including journalists, dissidents, lawyers and Muslim leaders, for decades under Soeharto. It was the dismantling of these laws and the constitutional and legislative grant of new guarantees of rights and freedoms after 1998 that gave them a voice in public affairs. And for Islamist hard-liners that proved to be the route to political leverage.

Jokowi’s dilemma is that it is hard to start silencing the hard-liners again without dismantling many of the freedoms that define the so-called ‘Reform Era’. The freedoms that protect HTI also protect other groups that do not have a religious agenda at all, and may, in fact, even oppose the hard-liner agenda. These include leading and influential human rights groups, journalists, legal aid lawyers, women’s NGOs, intellectual think-tanks, and so forth.

The emergency law thus has the ironic result of forcing civil society groups that are usually threatened by the hard-liners into their camp – at least on this issue. These groups know that they could easily be the next target. Anyone who thinks that the emergency law would never be used against any organisation other than a hard-line Islamist one obviously never visited Indonesia while Soeharto was in power (and Wiranto was armed forces chief). Targeting dissidents as ‘anti-Pancasila’ or a ‘threat to national unity’ was standard New Order operating procedure.

This is why the emergency law may not survive for long. Emergency laws like this must be approved or cancelled by the national legislature, the DPR, at its next sitting, and civil society organisations have already begun campaigning against it.

Likewise, it appears HTI will ask the Constitutional Court to rule on whether the emergency law breaches constitutional guarantees of freedom of association. When HTI goes to court, it will likely be supported by the civil society groups that are its natural enemies.

If the Constitutional Court agrees and strikes down the emergency law, the government will look very foolish indeed – and will have given yet another free kick to the hardliners.


Professor Tim Lindsey is Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne. His publications include Religion, Law and Intolerance in Indonesia (Routledge).

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