Indonesia, with its over 240 million practicing Muslims, is usually devoid of much of the instability that plagues the also-predominantly-Muslim Middle East. Its moderate policies and lack of frequent terrorist activity is often regarded as a shining testament against the assumption that Islam lends itself to violence. However, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a radical religious organization with a serious record of hate crimes, poses a serious threat to this valuable reputation. Founded in August 1998 by Saudi-educated Muhammed Rizieq Shihab, the FPI is notorious for raiding bars and nightclubs, places often perceived by extremely conservative Muslims as un-Islamic. Recently, the FPI has also started attacking religious minorities. With suspected links to ISIS and al-Qaeda, the FPI poses a significant risk to the fabric of Indonesian society, especially with the backdrop of supposed government indifference towards the protection of religious minorities. Most Indonesians, like most Muslims, practice a moderate form of Islam, and their lives are therefore jeopardized by the growing influence of such a radical organization.
The FPI, by attacking ideas and activities that it perceives to be un-Islamic, has already altered daily life in Indonesia. Although it previously limited its operations to nightclubs and bars, over the past few years the terrorist group has increasingly focused on other public spaces. In September 2010, the FPI was responsible for closing down several churches in West Java and for attacking one of Asia’s largest gay film festivals in Jakarta. As it expands its reach of terror, its priority target has arguably been the Ahmadiyah, a minority sect of Islam. In February 2011, 1500 FPI members were accused of beating three Ahmadiyah Muslims to death and attacking 21 members during their prayers. The year prior, the group not only carried out several attacks on Ahmadiyah headquarters but also attacked a meeting on free healthcare in East Java, under the mistaken impression that it was a meeting for the Communist Party of Indonesia. Such attacks on religious minorities go back even further: June of 2008 witnessed one of the most harrowing memories in recent Indonesian political history when the FPI staged an attack against the members of the National Alliance for the Freedom of Faith and Religion, injuring dozens of people.
On November 4, the FPI claimed responsibility for a series of violent clashes that broke out in Jakarta, demanding that the city’s Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, be ousted for insulting the Quran. The Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, even had to postpone his trip to Australia as these riots seized national attention. At the time, authorities reported that up to 150,000 people had gathered around the presidential palace, vehicles were torched and a fire broke out near the national monument. Although only one person was killed, such large-scale protests are rare in the capital, and indicative of the FPI’s growing influence.
Another reason the FPI threat to Indonesian peace and security is becoming increasingly alarming is because the FPI has been potentially strengthening ties to international groups like ISIS. The FPI is part of the larger Islamic organization known as the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI). Abu Bakar Ba’asyir led the MMI until 2011, when he was arrested and convicted of terrorism charges. Ba’asyir’s allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one of the leaders of ISIS, is indicative of a dangerous alliance between the FPI and ISIS, and a worrying sign for the Indonesian religious community. As ISIS expands in in Syria and Iraq, they increasingly appeal to national radical factions like the FPI. Several hardline extremists in Jakarta have already pledged their allegiance to ISIS. Even from maximum-security prison, Ba’asyir has reiterated his support for ISIS and the general idea of an Islamic caliphate.
The Syrian conflict has been profitable for the FPI, since it presents greater access to weapons as well as opportunities to form more direct connections to larger terrorist groups. Additionally, radical FPI jihadists have capitalized on Indonesia’s weak border control, allowing them to easily enter Syria through Turkey. Sri Yunanto, an agent from Indonesia’s national counterterrorism agency, has suggested that there is a realistic threat of what he calls a “jihadi alumni” in Indonesia. Close to 200 Indonesians have already joined ISIS in Syria, and this number has the potential to rise as the conflict continues. When the fighting ends and Indonesian fighters return home, there is a concern that they will continue their mission at home. There are few signs that this will occur, but terrorism analysts continue to worry about the significant security threat generally posed by the fighters’ return to Indonesia and their possible integration into FPI.
Although there has been popular mobilization against the FPI in the form of protests by activists and celebrities (such as the one in Central Kalimantan in February 2012), the Indonesian government has failed to offer substantive support to the protest efforts. In fact, the government has been suspected of assisting organizations like the FPI. The FPI has repeatedly received funding and support from both the police and military, including the former Indonesian National Armed Forces commander Wiranto. In an effort to keep the FPI as their “attack dog,” police and security officials have tried to please the FPI, doing so in a variety of ways that include praising the ban of liquor consumption and pornographic distribution, or even offering the group major financial assistance.
This alliance of the security forces with the FPI the legal system has grown from financial accommodation to include police compliance and aid in violence and harassment against religious minorities. In the infamous FPI attack in February 2011 on Ahmadiyah members, the police did not interfere. The court sentenced 12 FPI members to mere three to six month prison terms while sentencing an Ahmadiyah member to a six-month term for self-defense. In downplaying the importance of the FPI in catering to unfounded religious animosities, the police has unwittingly created and perpetuated a large terrorist group.
Indeed, the public has challenged the government’s alleged counterterrorism efforts, claiming that it has abetted the discrimination of minorities by helping the rise of extremist groups like the FPI. The actions of the government have also been described as the “Pakistanization of Indonesia”, recognizing a similar lack of religious freedoms and sectarian strife in Pakistan towards the Ahmadiyah community and other religious minorities (such as Shi’a Muslims and Christians). In Jakarta, minorities have raised grievances ranging from bureaucratic difficulties to unchecked violence and murder by extremist Sunni Muslims. Even in Aceh, the regional government in exile published a statement imploring the international community to demand the FPI and MMI leave Aceh, accusing the central government of helping these militant organizations travel from Jakarta to Aceh. Although severe Muslim-Christian violence escalated in the late 1990s in Poso, a bilateral peace agreement in 2001 managed to subside tensions. However, groups like the FPI have encouraged members to recommence the violence by torching Shi’a Muslim villages and disrupting the construction of churches. The government, while publicly condemning the relatively far away threat of ISIS, has allowed the FPI to continue their attacks unregistered. In 2013, the religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali applauded FPI as “a national asset.” Government institutions such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Bakor Pakem and the Ulema Council (MUI) are notorious for violating the rights of various religious minorities by issuing fatwas (religious rulings) that go as far as to demand the prosecution of self-proclaimed “blasphemers” that often belong to religious minorities. President Joko Widodo is yet to make good on his claim to establish a zero-tolerance policy on religious violence.
The extremist views of the FPI, which have materialized in dangerous attacks and have at least been tolerated if not encouraged and praised by state forces, present serious challenges to Indonesia’s historical understanding of public religious presence and harmony. If the state does not change its message and the tide does not turn, Indonesia may cease to represent the encouraging example for Islamic-majority nations that it has for so long.