Supporters of Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Indonesian hardline organisation FPI (Front Pembela Islam or Islamic Defenders Front), gather in a show of support for the firebrand cleric in front of the Baiturrahman grand mosque in Banda Aceh on December 8, 2020. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

The New FPI: Don’t Buy the Same Horse Twice

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The neo-FPI, the latest reincarnation of the Islamic Defenders Front, has sought to make a clean break from its controversial predecessor. Indonesians should take it with a dollop of salt.

The neo-FPI, the reincarnation of the controversial Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), has recast itself with a softer, gentler image and has sought to align itself with mainstream Muslim organisations. It should be given the benefit of the doubt, but only to an extent. Indonesians should examine the word and deeds of neo-FPI with a dollop of salt.

On 30 December 2020, the government banned FPI, the hardline group. The FPI was famous for its ‘sweeping’ efforts: it had engaged in vigorous and violent proselytisation targeting religious minorities, non-practising Muslims, or those who disagreed with its conservative viewpoints. The FPI was instrumental in mobilising its followers during the Aksi Bela Islam in 2016 and 2017, which contributed to the downfall of Ahok Basuki Tjahaja, the former governor of Jakarta.

The neo-FPI, now known as the Islamic Brotherhood Front (Front Persaudaraan Islam), claims it is different from its predecessor. On 25 March, the neo-FPI announced Muhammad bin Husein Alatas as its new chairman. He is none other than the son-in-law of Habib Rizieq Shihab, the spiritual leader for FPI. Muhammad replaced Qurthubi Jaelani who has now become the organisation’s advisor. His appointment was made a week before, during their national congress in Pesantren Salafiyah Al-Futuhiyan Lebak, Banten. During the congress, the neo-FPI introduced a new association article and organisational structure. It added that a new board will be in office until 2029. 

Indonesians who are well-versed in the FPI’s history should be sceptical at the least about the neo-FPI’s makeover. To begin with, having Rizieq Shahib’s son-in-law as the new spiritual leader of the neo-FPI should provoke suspicions. Judging from its article of association alone, the neo-FPI’s proposed reforms are also questionable. On the one hand, it recognises Pancasila (five principles enshrined in the Constitution) and the 1945 Constitution. On the other hand, it maintains that its support for the principles of Pancasila (belief in one God, humanity, national unity, deliberative democracy, and social justice) is conditional. The article reminds its followers of the unfulfilled promise to introduce shariah as originally stipulated in the Jakarta Charter (an initial draft which later formed the basis for the preamble of the Indonesian Constitution). This approach does not contradict the thesis written by none other than Rizieq Shihab himself, which states that Pancasila must be aligned to shariah

Moreover, its commitment to protecting the nation from radicalism, extremism and terrorism movements remains uncertain. In April 2021, Munarman, one of the prominent neo-FPI founders, was sentenced to three years in jail. The former FPI secretary-general was linked to a terrorist group in Makassar. Neo-FPI’s response was swift; it excluded Munarman from its newly-appointed board. This was a step in the right direction since it wanted to disassociate itself from the FPI. Yet it still needs to do more by firing members still rumoured to be affiliated with terrorist groups such as Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD).

The neo-FPI will face an uphill task convincing the public that it is different from FPI. Sceptics feel that it is opportunistic to take more palatable positions and depart from the approach taken by the old FPI.

Despite major internal structural changes, the neo-FPI’s commitment toward anti-radicalisation projects also fails to dispel public perceptions that the new FPI is different from the old. Al-Zastrouw Ngatawi, a Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) intellectual, contends that FPI is driven by the desire to maintain the dignity of Islam in the name of amar maruf nahi munkar (commanding the good and forbidding evil) as a solution toward keeping people away from disobedient deeds. While the Islamic principle is in the Quran and a noble one, FPI’s exclusivism, intolerance, and use of violence toward opposing viewpoints constitute the crux of the matter. FPI has also cooperated with other conservative groups including the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which sought to establish a global Islamic caliphate. The HTI was also banned by the Joko Widodo government. FPI and its conservative collaborators had also shaped legal decisions through political means. The 2016-2017 rallies against Ahok also successfully put him in prison. In short, the neo-FPI in a new guise still appears to draw on the same inclinations and philosophies of its predecessor. Intelligent Indonesians are unlikely to buy the same horse twice. 

To its credit, the neo-FPI has been able to reorganise itself and meet constitutional criteria. It seeks to align itself with moderate Indonesian Muslim organisations such as NU through promoting aswajaization. This involves conducting da’wah or proselytisation in conjunction with the principle of moderation and looking after the sunnah (the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad) and his companions. In short, the neo-FPI seeks to promote mainstream Sunni tradition like the majority of Indonesian Muslims. 

To be sure, former FPI members have welcomed the formation of neo-FPI. Yet, it is struggling to attract new members and encourage FPI members to join the new group. Covid-19 has impacted its recruitment drive. Its activities are also limited to places such as in Pondok Pesantren Agrokultural Markaz Syariah, Bogor which belongs to Rizieq Shihab. Despite its low-key presence for on-site activities, it is more active online. Since 2021, they have produced about 160 videos on their YouTube channel, including those featuring neo-FPI’s current chairman and documenting humanitarian assistance activities after natural disasters. 

The neo-FPI will face an uphill task convincing the public that it is different from FPI. Sceptics feel that it is opportunistic to take more palatable positions and depart from the approach taken by the old FPI. Even the Minister of Religious Affairs, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, has insinuated that there will always be attempts by groups to challenge Indonesia’s diversity (kebhinekaan). Speaking at a recent national conference held by Gerakan Pemuda Ansor — the NU youth movement — the minister did not hide his feelings and was upfront when reminding Indonesians to be mindful of the silent threats within the neo-FPI’s camouflage. Only time will tell if the new FPI constitutes a serious break from its controversial predecessor. 

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