JAKARTA: Indonesia’s chief security minister announced this week that the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has been banned, while pledging to stop all activities carried out by the hardline group.
Mr Mohammad Mahfud, the coordinating minister for politics, legal and security matters said the government has rejected the group’s application to renew its civic organisation permit which expired on Jun 29, 2019.
“As an organisation, the FPI had continuously conducted activities which violates public order and security as well as the law such as violence, unauthorised raids, provocations and so on,” he said of the government’s decision to revoke the permit.
“The government will stop any activities conducted by FPI because FPI no longer has any legal basis as an organisation.”
The FPI is a controversial but influential organisation in Indonesia with millions of followers and hundreds of chapters in nearly all major cities, towns and regencies across the country.
How did this organisation transform from a group of religious figures advocating morality and fighting vice to one of the country’s most politically influential groups?
The FPI was formed in August 1998 after the fall of president Suharto who led the country with an iron fist for 32-years by a charismatic religious leader named Muhammad Rizieq Shihab.
The group advocated for the strict implementation of the Islamic Syariah law in Indonesia and began conducting unauthorised raids on bars and nightclubs, ordering them to close during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The raids often resulted in violence and property damage.
As the police force and security officials did not take decisive enforcement actions against the FPI, it became emboldened. The group soon began targeting other vices, minority religious groups they deemed blasphemous and defiant, as well as members of the LGBT community.
In 2002, the government began cracking down on the FPI. Mr Shihab and 13 of his followers were jailed for seven months.
However, this only solidified Mr Shihab’s prominence among conservative Muslims, particularly those who agree with his cause of fighting against vice and defiant religious groups.
Mr Shihab and 56 of his followers were jailed again in 2008, this time for attacking participants of a peaceful rally in support of religious minority group Ahmadiyya, which has endured persecution from groups like the FPI. Mr Shihab was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
However, there were signs that the government was siding with FPI. Just days after the attack, the government issued a decree banning the Ahmadiyya from proselytizing its beliefs.
This further elevated Mr Shihab’s prominence and conservative groups in small towns and cities began joining the FPI or setting up their own chapters of the FPI. These new chapters employed similar tactics, including what was said to be intimidation as well as rowdy street protests, which seemed effective in getting public officials' attention.
Members of the FPI have successfully vetoed the construction of churches in several areas. They also persuaded local leaders to shut down Ahmadiyya mosques and freeze its assets.
The FPI’s journey to becoming a politically influential group passed a major milestone in 2016. Then Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian Chinese Indonesian, made a comment about people who used an interpretation of an Islamic verse from the holy book of Quran as an excuse not to vote for a non-Muslim into public office.
As a result, the FPI and other conservative groups launched a series of massive protests calling for Mr Purnama's arrest based on the country’s blasphemy law.
The protests attracted hundreds of thousands of participants and were believed to be instrumental in the defeat of the popular governor during the 2017 gubernatorial race despite his success in leading the city and reforming its bureaucracy.
Mr Purnama was arrested shortly after the gubernatorial election and subsequently found guilty by a Jakarta court. He finished his prison term in January 2019.
The FPI then went on to become an influential supporter of president Joko Widodo’s rival Prabowo Subianto in the 2019 presidential election. President Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi, is a close friend of Ahok.
LEADER IN EXILE
As the FPI became more visible politically, Mr Shihab’s detractors began building up cases against the cleric.
In 2017, Mr Shihab was charged with the anti-pornography law. He was accused of exchanging graphic messages and nude photos with a woman and insulting the nation’s ideology during one of his sermons.
He fled to Saudi Arabia on Apr 26, 2017 where he spent his days in self-imposed exile.
Even though he continued to address his adoring followers via online video calls and pre-recorded sermons, including several which he made for Mr Subianto’s presidential campaign, there were signs that the FPI’s prominence had begun to fade.
He returned to Indonesia on Nov 10, 2020 after the legal cases against him were dropped.
VIOLATION OF HEALTH PROTOCOLS
Ignoring COVID-19 protocols, thousands of his supporters flocked to the airport to welcome him. Many were seen without their masks and did not practice social distancing.
Mr Shihab and his supporters seemed to ignore health protocols again just days later when the cleric staged two back-to-back sermons in Jakarta and the suburb of Bogor. On Nov 14, he held a wedding for his daughter and invited 10,000 guests.
At least 80 people who attended these events tested positive for COVID-19.
READ: Two Indonesian police chiefs reassigned after massive religious gatherings violated health protocols
Mr Shihab himself was rushed to a hospital just south of Jakarta several days later. Doctors at the hospital and family members said that Mr Shihab did not contract the coronavirus. They refused to show his test results to government officials.
After being discharged, the cleric's whereabouts became unknown. He evaded government officials, who were waiting outside the hospital to question him about his health condition.
Meanwhile, the police were eager to question him about the series of events which he staged for possible violation of health protocols. He was summoned to appear for questioning on Dec 7.
Hours before the questioning took place, Mr Shihab and members of his family were reportedly spotted leaving the city, escorted by several FPI members.
Police said undercover officers followed the group but were boxed in by two cars with Mr Shihab’s bodyguards in them. Police opened fire and six FPI members were gunned down.
Police said the officers were acting in self-defence and that the FPI members were armed with pistols and sharp weapons. The FPI denied this, saying that police attacked the FPI members first and that the six were unarmed.
An independent investigation is being carried out by the National Commission on Human Rights.
On Dec 10, Mr Shihab was charged for inciting people to violate health protocols by holding mass gatherings. He was arrested two days later when he finally appeared for police questioning.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR FPI?
Security analyst Stanislaus Riyanta said the government should brace itself for a possible backlash.
“The impact of the FPI ban needs to be mitigated because (the FPI) has a huge number of followers and they are militant,” Mr Riyanta told CNA.
“They could seek revenge and resort to violence. Conversely, members could choose to go quiet and continue their activities in secret or operate under a different name but the same ideology.”
Mr Riyanta said FPI members might employ both tactics at the same time.
FPI's senior figures said they will consult Mr Shihab on the next steps, and follow his instructions.
Meanwhile, several chapters of the FPI indicated that they will likely operate under a different name, according to local media reports.