Indonesia: Defending Islam against itself

By Bill Guerin

Al-Habib Muhammad Rizieq bin Hussein Syihab, leader of

the pro-Suharto radical Muslim group FPI (Defenders of

Islam), and his storm troopers may, after two years of

apparent immunity from the process of law and order,

be about to be brought to account. 

Police over the weekend arrested 13 members of the FPI

after violent attacks on several of the capital's

nightspots by an estimated 600 members. A discotheque

was stoned and the equipment at two late-night pool

bars destroyed. 

Although the FPI has been consistently vandalizing and

looting such entertainment venues for at least two

years, there have never before been any arrests. 

There is no evidence yet that the pivotal arrests and

police action are related to the palpable nervousness

here about the effect this domestic violence has on

the image of Indonesia as seen by the outside world. 

FPI aggression and violence in numerous attacks on

places deemed to be "immoral", including nightclubs

and restaurants, radical Islamic groups continuously

voicing resentment toward perceived threats to Islam,

"sweeps" for US nationals in Central Java, and other

such incidents have had an as yet uncalculated effect

on tourism and foreign investment. 

A visibly angry national police chief General Da'i

Bachtiar confined his public comments to warning

anyone or any group against taking the law into their

own hands. "I remind all groups, whoever they are, to

respect the law, and the law can only be implemented

by institutions or officials empowered to do so.

Anyone else should not take the law into their hands,

because that is a violation of the laws," Bachtiar


Reining in the FPI will be no easy task. The movement

was founded in 1998 and is said to be funded by rich

anti-reformist generals intent on protecting the

vested interests of the elite. 

It is, though, a dangerous fallacy to say that

political parties or members of the old Suharto crowd

intent on destabilizing the capital and the country

manipulate the FPI or to dismiss them as

"Rent-a-Jihad", fanatics for hire by the police and

the military. 

The New Order government under Suharto always

restricted the political rise of Islam for the same

reasons as the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno. 

Realizing the potentially explosive force of a highly

politicized Islam, especially at a time when Islamic

fundamentalism was radicalizing politics from North

Africa to Malaysia, Suharto foresaw a danger that the

emergence of a politically dominant Islam would cleave

Indonesian political society along religious lines. 

Thus the national ideology, Pancasila, was to be the

glue that held this large nation together. But is this

glue still sticky enough? 

It is hardly surprising, given the political turmoil

since Suharto stepped down, that Islamic movements

have seized the opportunity to be seen and be heard.

The two largest Islamic groups, the 35-million-strong

Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), whence PPP originated, and the

Muhammadiyah with some 28 million members, neutered

during the Suharto era, quickly regained their manhood

and achieved a new and substantial political stature. 

NU chairman Abdurrahman Wahid formed the National

Awakening Party (PKB), and his most bitter foe,

Muhammadiyah leader Amien Rais, founded the National

Mandate Party (PAN). 

For the first time in more than 30 years Muslim

parties are represented in the Indonesian parliament,

and are now conscious of their strength. Does this

mean that Indonesia could become a Muslim theocratic

state in the future, like Iran or Pakistan? 

The Islam-based United Development Party (PPP),

authorized by Suharto to represent all Islamic

political factions, had a full makeover and broke its

links with the establishment. Vice President Hamzah

Haz, who was adamantly against Megawati Sukarnoputri

becoming president in October 1999, heads the PPP,

which, with another Islamic party, the Crescent Star

Party (PBB), has long been campaigning for the revival

of the Jakarta Charter. This calls for the adoption of

syari'ah (Islamic law) for Muslims, and needs an

amendment to Article 29 of the constitution which was

rejected by the MPR at its annual session in August. 

A keystone of the FPI demands is also reformation of

Islam by imposing Islamic law in Indonesia, in an

attempt to appeal to fellow Muslim citizens. They

strive for publicity, however bad, to make up for the

fact that they are extremely small in numbers, though

they claim to have thousands of "warriors" ready to

take up arms as it were. 

Most of their followers are from the lower strata of

society, poorly educated and usually unemployed. 

Wielding vicious homemade spears everywhere they went,

the FPI forces of repression were earlier ill-received

by a reformation movement determined to fight.

Nowadays though, when these white-robed "warriors" go

on the march, most civilians get out of the way. 

Just prior to the latest attacks, the hardliners

toured Central Jakarta in a convoy of vehicles,

bawling and screaming aggression, and even the police

admitted they were unable to stem the violence because

they were outnumbered. 

Although some 80 percent of Indonesia's 215 million

people Indonesia are Muslim, the vast majority are

moderates. According to Indonesian Ulemas Council

(MUI) chairman Amidhan, Muslim hardliners make up only

1 percent of the country's population. 

Asked whether FPI was a competitor to the mainstream

Islamic groups, Al-Habib admitted, "NU is wiser, more

polite and softer. Muhammadiyah is critical,

intellectual. FPI is more physical, we fight

immorality. NU plants the seeds of the paddy, because

it has the seeds. FPI doesn't have the seeds, we only

have the sickle. Our job is to clean up the mice, the

pests that ruin the paddy. It's just a division of

labor. There is no competition between us." 

Syafi'i Ma'arif, chairman of Muhammadiyah, however,

has frequently warned that mainstream Islamic groups

need to stay close to their members and listen to

their aspirations, so that the voice of the "silent

majority" of mainstream Muslims is heard, at least in

the background. 

The latest incidents and the subsequent arrests have

attracted little attention in the foreign media but if

the establishment backs off caging the violent fringe

elements, the perceptions will be of a significant

political shift toward a more aggressive groundswell

of Islam in Indonesia. 

The FPI and other radical groups may not yet have won

over disaffected mainstream Muslims, but unless the

weekend arrests signal a crackdown on their violence,

threats and intimidation, the outlook could rapidly


The real defenders of Islam in Indonesia are the

Islamic masses that mainly belong to the NU and

Muhamaddiyah, who see Indonesia as safer within its

traditional plurality. These organizations have

consistently warned that the introduction of Islamic

law is not acceptable to the spirit of the national

state of Indonesia. 

The NU, for example, speaks for a membership in excess

of 30 million and an unparalleled, grassroots,

village-based system of traditional religious schools

or pesantren that covers the whole archipelago. 

The modernist Muhammadiyah, on the other hand, is

largely middle-class-based, and its philanthropic

success in building universities, hospitals,

orphanages and foundations inspires the loyalty of an

equally important sector of modern Indonesian society.

Together, the two organizations reach out and touch

the hearts and souls of most of Indonesia's "ordinary"


The extremists are not acting with the blessing of the

NU, the Muhamaddiyah or the government of Indonesia.

With their actions they not only threaten the image of

Islam but also pose a danger to the preservation of

Indonesia as a secular state governed (more or less)

in line with the all-inclusive and tolerant Pancasila


Though Megawati has been able since September 11,

2001, to juggle support for the US-led global "war" on

terrorism and the sensitivities of the Muslim majority

in Indonesia, this was largely due to senior officers

in the Indonesian military (TNI) holding fast to their

predominantly moderate and secular views so as to

avoid alienating the wider Muslim community. 

But now the new military paradigm, and the consequent

hardline stance on any protests or disturbances that

threaten security or stability, may encourage once

again the use of excessive force in controlling

anti-US sentiment. If US President George W Bush goes

ahead and bombs Iraq, the situation on the ground in

Indonesia could deteriorate very quickly and Americans

may have to be withdrawn to safety. 

Suharto, like his predecessor Sukarno, feared that

fundamentalist Islamic elements, the "extreme" right,

posed as much of a threat to the unity and security of

the state as the communists, the "extreme" left.

Unrestrained Islam was not something Suharto and the

military would ever allow. 

Later, Abdurrahman Wahid tried hard to move toward

separating religion from the state but found that

Islam is too embedded in Indonesian culture to be

taken out of politics. 

Mainstream Indonesian Muslims also fear a new secular

Indonesia that would take away the right of their

religion to be afforded state protection. 

Al-Habib and his radical Islamic FPI, on the other

hand, which wishes to see Indonesia become an Islamic

state and is most keen on taking the law into its own

hands to protect Muslim "values", represent a clear

and present danger to Indonesia. 

The agenda is clear. Two months after Megawati was

sworn in as president last year, Al-Habib was

interviewed by a local media consultancy firm and had

this to say: "When a policy is issued to castrate the

rights of FPI, or oppress Muslim people, we will

fight. So, we warn the government not to try to

oppress Muslims. As long as they do not, FPI will have

no reasons to act. But if the government acts against

Muslims, then we will take real action! So, we will

watch the behavior of the government. You can say that

FPI is practicing social control towards Megawati's

government and the policies it makes. So we would like

to warn the present government under Megawati: Don't

mess with Muslim people or try to oppress them! We

will be watching! This is a warning!" 

Though the FPI thugs have waged a relentless campaign

of destruction of property owned by those they say are

sinners, to the radicals the sin of the president is

just that of being born a woman. Al-Habib has said FPI

will not recognize a female president and, according

to him, under syariah a woman cannot be president. 

The continued violence and unrest in the regions,

economic turmoil and the scrabble for political clout

before the elections in 2004, as well as the general

lawlessness, all creates a ripe battlefield for those

who abuse the law and openly defy the authorities in

the name of Islam. 

There is little of more fundamental importance to

Indonesia than the attainment of religious harmony in

these multiracial, secular states, whose people find

their spiritual strength in various religions and live

amid such a diverse cultural tradition. 

Religious sensitivities, more often than not, have

created havoc in the community. Religious and

sectarian killings in Ambon and the rest of the Spice

Islands have claimed many hundreds of lives. 

Islam is a religion of love and peace, and those who

resort to destruction and violence are blackening its

image and discrediting its message. The FPI, however,

portrays the religion as a violent and fierce creed,

and demonstrations and violent behavior only tarnish

the image of Islam. Confiscating beer and spirits,

smashing nightclub signs, windows, and security posts,

accosting people, shaving the heads of women, and

other acts of intimidation have nothing in common with

believers of any faith. 

The demonstrators say they are acting on behalf of

Islam, so it is fair to ask how they interpret the

Islamic religion, which teaches the virtues of wisdom,

patience and mutual respect, by showing their

disrespect for the law and for the authorities. 

They want to show their antipathy toward immoral

activities, but they fail to convince that they are of

high morals themselves, or that they have any respect

for the law. 

Further adverse publicity and any perception of

unrestrained Islamism of the sort Suharto so carefully

caged will set Indonesia even farther back on the road

to economic recovery. Continued weakness in law

enforcement against Muslims who are committing such

offenses threatens the growth of even more Islamic

extremism and even a potential economic collapse that

would destabilize the entire region.


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact for further information