The Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline group which was banned by the Indonesian government last year, has relaunched itself under a new guise. Not many are convinced that the proverbial apple has fallen far from the tree.
On the second last day of 2020, the Indonesian government banned the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI), a controversial hardline group. Ten months on, the group has skirted around the ban and reinvented itself. The question is whether the government of President Joko Widodo will find a pretext for clamping down on the new entity.
In the middle of September, a series of videos declared the re-emergence of the Islamic Brotherhood Front (Front Persaudaraan Islam), or what is now called the ‘new FPI’ or FPI Reborn. The videos went viral on social media. The event was attended by representatives from 27 regencies and cities in West Java.
Similar declarations about the rebirth of the new FPI occurred across different regions in Indonesia. Initially, FPI Reborn tried to conceal the emergence of the new entity. But the facts speak for themselves. Speaking on a television talk show in September, Aziz Yanuar, a member of FPI Reborn’s Advocacy Team which gives legal counsel to the organisation, acknowledged that the new FPI was declared on 1 January 2021. This was only two days after a joint decree made by six government ministers and heads of agencies which banned the old FPI. There were several reasons for the ban, which was issued on 30 December 2020. Some members of the old FPI had supported the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and were involved in violent activities and illegal raids.
It is quite evident that there is little daylight between the disbanded FPI and the new FPI. They share the same acronym. The declaration of the new FPI was conducted at a venue on Jalan Petamburan III in Jakarta. The headquarters of the old FPI and its successor are at the same location. The venue is near the residence of Rizieq Shihab, the former leader of the old FPI. The logo of the new FPI looks very similar to that of its predecessor.
The former FPI figures who are now taking part in FPI Reborn reinforce perceptions that FPI Reborn is merely old wine in a new bottle. The leader of FPI Reborn, Qurthubi Jaelani, is the former chairman of the Banten chapter of the old FPI. Sobri Lubis, who has been the chairman of FPI since Rizeq went into self-exile in Saudi Arabia a few years ago, serves as an advisor to FPI Reborn. Rizieq and Munarman, a former general secretary of the old FPI, were not included in the management structure of FPI Reborn. But as Aziz has acknowledged, ‘their soul and spirit will remain with FPI Reborn forever’.
FPI Reborn is not the first initiative carried out by former FPI members. Soon after the old FPI was disbanded, Sobri Lubis and other old FPI figures announced the establishment of the Islamic Unity Front (Front Persatuan Islam) on 31 December, which carries the same acronym as FPI. They used the same hardline confrontational strategy tactics as the old FPI, calling out the government President Joko Widodo as an oppressive regime that had violated the Constitution because it had banned the older entity. Subsequently, most if not all members of the Islamic Unity Front joined the new FPI.
It is clear that FPI Reborn is now advancing a narrative that dials down the hardline image that was closely associated with the old FPI.
But with the escalating crackdown on Islamist groups by the government, former FPI leaders were forced to tweak their communication strategy out of expediency. FPI Reborn is the latest manifestation of this strategic shift, with a gentler front on display. They issued three ‘superior’ programmes. First, they call for the eradication of liberalisation to protect Pancasila from the liberal ideology that gave birth to atheism, communism and capitalism (an odd claim, since it presumes that liberalism is the propagating influence for atheism and communism). Second, they advocate deradicalisation to protect and buttress Pancasila, the nation’s pluralist state ideology, from radical ideologies that create the dangers of extremism and terrorism. Lastly, they promote Aswaja-ization, namely, carrying out da’wah or proselytisation with the principle of moderation and caring for the sunnah (the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad) and his companions.
It is clear that FPI Reborn is now advancing a narrative that dials down the hardline image associated with the old FPI. This is strategic: since the government has been aggressively carrying out deradicalisation in Indonesia, FPI Reborn is making a mid-course correction to fit into the government’s narrative.
The refresh of FPI also arises from pressing exigencies, or even the need for survival. In the new FPI’s Charter, it is stated that this organisation has at its core two principles: the religious principle of Islam, and the national principle of Pancasila. FPI Reborn appears to have learned its lessons. The old FPI’s Charter explicitly called for the enforcement of ‘Islamic law comprehensively (kaffah) under the auspices of the Islamic caliphate’. This gave President Jokowi a lawful pretext to dissolve the old FPI. The old FPI was deemed to have broken Law Number 16 of 2017 regulating social organisations, where it was considered to be contrary to the ideology of the state, namely Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution.
Put differently, the new narrative propagated by FPI Reborn is a new, if not cynical, ploy to get around the Social Organizations Law so that it can be ratified by the state. The new FPI also wants to eliminate the image of violence that has long been associated with its predecessor.
The question that flows from this is straightforward: will the government be so gullible to believe that FPI Reborn has genuinely transformed in ideological terms, and swung away from its predecessor? The use of the same FPI acronym and similar symbol to its forerunner organization is conspicuously telling. Quite a few Indonesians will remember that the Banten chapter of the old FPI, which was once led by the current chairman of FPI Reborn, is widely considered to be responsible for the massacre of members of the Ahmadiyah sect in Cikeusik, Banten, in 2011. Although the tariqah (method) of the FPI Reborn looks different, its fikrah (ideology) draws on the same ideological stream as the old FPI.
Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.