The Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto announced last month the government’s plan to ban Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, or HTI, by means of having the hardline Islamic organization disbanded through a court order. "HTI’s activities suggest that its aims, foundation and values are directly opposed to [the state ideology] Pancasila and violating Law 17 2013, which requires all mass organizations to adhere to [Pancasila]," he said, quickly adding that the move should not be interpreted that the government was "ill-disposed to Islamic organizations."
The move, however, is evidently an attempt by the government to curb radical elements within political Islam, particularly after the string of massive protests orchestrated by Islamist groups such as the Guardians of the Indonesian Ulema Council's Fatwas (GNPF-MUI), the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI) and HTI in the wake of the criminalization of the then Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok: Tjahja Purnama for blasphemy against Islam. Clearly taken aback by the large turnouts in the "In Defense of Islam" rallies, the administration of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo scrambled to mount a response.
Singled out by the government for being targeted with a ban, HTI remains a problematic choice. On the one hand, as an offshoot of the international Hizbut Tahrir, HTI has been openly advocating for an Islamic theocratic form of government known as "khilafah." It will be hard for HTI’s defense team to refute this charge during the trial as it is well-documented. Known for the militant tenacity of its cadres, HTI, however, compared to groups like FPI, has rarely resorted to violence in its advocacy of the shariah or khilafah. Therefore, the government’s decision to go after it rather than FPI has puzzled many.
Under the previous president, the government’s reason for not acting against FPI was that it was not a properly registered body, making it legally difficult for prosecution. The same lame excuse was used by the current Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo earlier this year during an interview. However, he recanted the next day by clarifying that FPI was indeed registered with his ministry but not HTI. HTI’s spokesman rejected the minister’s claim and said the organization was registered with the Ministry of Justice instead. The government’s reluctance to move against FPI openly is even more suspect considering the claim by Wikileaks cables that FPI was deliberately set up by retired generals of both the military and the police as their attack dog.
The apparent confusion among government officials about the legality of various Islamist groups is troubling, given that HTI has been operating in the country for more than 20 years. It is also a definite pointer that the government never bothered to keep a close watch on hardline groups, and consequently the plan to ban HTI was most likely hastily concocted in reaction to the Islamists’ growing political stature. In the event of a favorable court verdict for the government to proceed with the ban, the question remains whether government agencies have the professionalism and impartiality to carry it out.
Foremost of the problems facing the government is the unknown extent to which HTI has infiltrated various institutions in the country. Setara Institute, an NGO with concerns in human rights, has claimed that HTI has a vast network within Indonesia’s tertiary education institutions, especially state-operated universities. A report by BBC Indonesia last year also confirmed this claim. In an interview with Robby Effendy, an HTI functionary at Yogyakarta’s Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI), he revealed that, apart from the support for HTI’s aims among university lecturers and students, the organization also has sympathizers among the military, police and civil servants.
Sometime ago the public also learned that one of the presiding judges in Ahok’s blasphemy case trial was known to be a supporter of HTI. Around the same time, Minister Tjahjo Kumolo also alleged a former minister to be an HTI supporter, leading to the former Sport and Youth Minister Adhyaksa Dault under the previous president to clarify his presence at an HTI function in 2013 and protest his innocence. If the former minister Kumolo referred to was indeed Dault, then the only proof the government has against him is a video clip uploaded to YouTube. This suggests a grievous lack of credible dossiers on HTI beyond what is available in the public domain. As such, even with a ban in place – short of a witch-hunt –HTI sympathizers will remain in the administration, covertly advancing their own agenda at the expense of their loyalty to the state.
It is important that the government ensure an effective ban. Otherwise it will join the ranks of all the other token laws and regulations, prescribed on paper but almost never enacted. One example of such token laws is Clause 302 or Clause 406 of the Criminal Code on cruelty against animals. Both clauses state that it is criminal to torture, maim or kill animals but to date no successful prosecution under the category has succeeded.
A recent test case occurred in the East Java town of Madiun, where a woman called Winarsih reported her neighbor Herman Santoso to the police for poisoning her four cats to death. Such cases, even when filed with the police, often peter out before prosecution takes place because law enforcers have not been conditioned to regard them as important. In most cases, people reporting cruelty against animals may find themselves ridiculed by the police and discouraged from taking the case further. In the worst scenario, an HTI-sympathizing officer might reject any complaint if the animal in question happens to be a dog, for instance, considered untouchable by hard-line Muslims.
By the same token, will the ban on HTI only apply to the organization per se or will it cover the ideology it espouses? Will HTI membership be automatically considered illegal or will someone have to file a report first? Can we be certain that government agencies can carry out the ban professionally regardless of the supposed infiltration of the civil service by HTI?
In pursuing a legal ban on HTI, the government is entering into uncharted waters. This is the first time an Indonesian government has attempted to ban an organization through the courts. Unprecedented resolve and tenacity will be needed to carry the effort through. Failure to ensure an effective ban will not only embolden the radicals but make further mockery of the country’s legal system.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos