Earlier this week, the spokesman for the ultra-conservative Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, Munarman, was declared a suspect in a slander case by the Bali Police over his claim that the island's cultural public order force, or pecalang, frequently prevent Muslims from attending Friday prayers. Meanwhile, FPI's own leader Rizieq Shihab had also been named suspect for allegedly desecrating the state ideology Pancasila. Succinctly put, FPI and its affiliates have found themselves embattled on several fronts.
What is more important, the legal crackdown against FPI appears to be a concerted effort by the state to weaken the fundamentalist group. It is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that its current legal woes have nothing to do with the fact that FPI had been behind the last two mass rallies, on Nov. 4 and Dec. 2 last year, to force the government's hand with regard to Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent currently tried for alleged blasphemy.
The November rally, curiously called "Aksi Damai" ("Peaceful Act") 411, caught President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's government unaware as hundreds of thousands protesters converged on the presidential palace. On the morning of the second rally, several public figures advocating the protests were arrested on the charge of treason. While FPI's Rizieq Shihab remained untouched, even succeeding in appearing on the same stage with Jokowi, there were subsequent signs that the government had decided to act against FPI by acquainting it with the full force of the law.
Accustomed to having its action unchallenged by the state, particularly during the ten-year tenure of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, FPI's boldness had grown into hubris, which proved to be its own Achilles' heel. It overplayed its hand when it provocatively threatened revolution if Ahok were to be let free from the blasphemy charge against him.
The rallies were a turning point for President Jokowi since his own stance against FPI gradually hardened. Jokowi was reported to be furious in December when he learned that several police precincts had collaborated with FPI in instructing business owners not to make their Muslim employees wear "Christmas attributes," to conform to a recent fatwa issued by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) to that effect.
Summoning the National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian and his top echelon officers to the palace, the president reminded them that law enforcement in the republic is based on statutory laws not rulings by religious bodies. The president's rebuke provided the catalyst for firm police action against hardline groups. A much lauded and publicized case took place in Sragen, Central Java, where the local police chief adamantly refused to let local FPI members carry out "sweeping" of shops and supermarkets to catch out Muslims wearing Christmas hats and such.
Two months on, with leading figures of radical Muslim faction suddenly finding themselves in trouble with the law, the government's strategy seems to be working. While the current crackdown appears to have been motivated by the government's survival instinct, its efforts are to be commended, and indeed overdue.
Over the years radical Islamist groups such as FPI went bad to worse in their flouting of the law and human rights through the government's inaction. Their frequent raids to enforce the fasting months against food hawkers were essentially illegal but were never seriously dealt with; the government often turned a blind eye to their violent acts against the freedom of worship of other faiths; and all the while law enforcement agencies were busy extricating themselves from guilt and responsibility.
The intolerant values espoused by FPI and its thugs may not be shared by the majority of Indonesian Muslims, however, the state's permissiveness meant that radical visions of Islam were allowed to proliferate undeterred for the best part of the last decade or so. Judging by the turnouts for the last two Islamist rallies in Jakarta, it is safe to say that as a result of the government's negligence, hardline groups were indeed successful in making inroads into mainstream Muslim thoughts and aspirations.
In turn the government's timely new found courage proved infectious as different people and groups started to lodge complaints against FPI and its leaders with the police. Sukmawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, reported Rizieq Shihab for desecrating Pancasila in a speech. A group of Catholic university students also accused Shihab of blaspheming against Christianity for publicly mocking the Trinity doctrine during a recorded sermon.
For the time being, the government's legal assault against FPI and its cronies seems to have one aim: to discourage them from trying to challenge the government's authority. When FPI announced its intention to hold another rally on February 11 in "defense of wronged Muslim leaders," the police responded by summoning Bachtiar Nasir for questioning in a money-laundering case.
Bachtiar is the chairman of the Guardians of the Indonesian Ulema Council's Fatwas (GNPF-MUI), the amalgam body of FPI and its supporters responsible for both rallies in November and December. He is alleged to have misappropriated funds donated by ordinary Muslims for the Islamist rallies.
The recent government maneuvers against hardline groups show that there are various legally sound ways in which it can contain radicalism without resorting to disbandment. It is true that there are many Indonesians who would like to see FPI officially banned but such a move would put the government on a slippery slope with regard to democracy and free speech. It would also set a bad precedent as well as inadvertently granting FPI martyrdom among its sympathizers.
Instead of an outright ban, which could only push the movement underground, the government should focus on impairing the growth of radical groups through consistent application of the law. Clauses against hate speech and discrimination exist in our legal code; the problem is they are rarely enforced. Law enforcers are rarely told that these transgressions are to be rigorously dealt with.
It remains to be seen if the government can keep up its successful legal pincer movement against hardline groups like FPI after the current crisis is over. For the sake of the nation and the rule of law, it should. It may put our legal system through its paces but, given the new public appreciation of the police force since it took on FPI, it may be worth the trouble.