The latest banning of a hardline Islamist grouping in Indonesia may see history repeat itself, reassuringly.
On 30 December 2020, the Indonesian government banned the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a controversial hardline group that has made headlines internationally. In 2017, the Joko Widodo administration did the same to Indonesian Hizbut Tahrir (HTI). The FPI ban was issued through a joint ministerial decree (SKB) less than two months after the return of the Front’s leader Muhammad Rizieq Shihab from his self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia on 10 November 2020, and less than a month after the death of six of Shihab’s FPI guards in a clash with the police on 7 December. The issuing of the ban coincided with the commemoration of the 11th anniversary of the death of Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid who promised to ban the FPI during his presidency (1999-2001).
The decree mentioned several reasons for the ban. Among them is that the FPI has no legal grounds to operate as a civil organisation after its registration permit (SKT) expired on 20 June 2019. More importantly, some members of this group supported the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and were involved in violent activities, illegal raids, and provocation. Immediately after the banning, the Indonesian police and military came to Petamburan III, the headquarters of the FPI, to take down FPI’s signboard and stop any of its activities, including a press conference scheduled in the afternoon of 30 December 2020.
Shihab himself was arrested on 12 December for allegedly breaching the government’s health protocols in several crowd-pulling events; including at the airport during his arrival; during his daughter’s wedding ceremony held at his home and the FPI headquarters in Petamburan; and during the foundation stone-laying ceremony for a new mosque at the Markas Syariah Agricultural Islamic Boarding School in Megamendung, Bogor, West Java. Shihab is still being detained by police after the initial 20-day detention order recently was extended to 40 days. He is also facing another case after the court lifted the investigation termination warrant (SP3) relating to his controversial pornography case. The government appears to be trying to find every reason to jail Shihab.
Where the former FPI members go and what they will do needs to be tracked carefully. There are two categories of FPI membership: regular members or those who join the FPI for non-paramilitary reasons; and the members of Laskar Pembela Islam (LPI), FPI’s paramilitary organisation. Some of these were previously street thugs or members of other paramilitary groups. They joined the FPI to find religious meaning for their thuggery. By joining FPI, they do not only feel relieved of their previous bad behaviour by cleansing their sins, but also that they are fulfilling a religious calling.
The feelings of alienation against the government and in-group solidarity caused by the 7 December killings, the 13 December arrest of Shahib, the 30 December ban and the freezing of FPI’s properties in Megamendung could become a time bomb.
They are likely to return to being street thugs or join other paramilitary groups such as Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR) or the Pemuda Pancasila youth organisation. There is only a slim chance of many of them joining a more radical group like Jemaah Anshorut Dauluh (JAD) that is considered by the United Nations as “the largest ISIL-affiliated terror network in Indonesia”. FPI is simply a thuggish group with religious trappings, not a terrorist group with strong ideological convictions.
One thing that could help reduce the anger of former FPI members and the risk of them joining more violent groupings is the just punishment of those who killed six members of the FPI who guarded Shihab on 7 December. Without this, the banning of the organisation could easily be perceived by FPI cadres as government authoritarianism and strengthen their opposition to the government. The feelings of alienation against the government and in-group solidarity caused by the 7 December killings, the 13 December arrest of Shahib, the 30 December ban and the freezing of FPI’s properties in Megamendung could become a time bomb.
This bomb may not tick loudly or long. As with the banning of the Indonesian Hizbut Tahrir (HTI) in 2017, the opposition to the banning of the FPI may prove to be weak and sporadic. The FPI is nationally strong with many branches in many districts, but it has no international network. Instead, it is infamous internationally as a violent thuggish group that attacks religious minorities. Some scholars even draw similarities between the FPI and the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. The ban, therefore, likely will be applauded and praised internationally by many as a brave and courageous move by the Indonesian government. Even former allies of the FPI in the government, like Anies Baswedan and Prabowo Subianto, have remained silent on the ban.
Immediately after the banning of the HTI in 2017, a huge wave of solidarity seemed to swell among Muslims opposing government policy to ban this group. However, not long after that, the opposition dissipated and became disorganised. This can be seen as an indicator that the support for Islamic radicalism, although noisy, is weak. The FPI ban may well provide more evidence of this reassuring reality.