Members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) hold a protest in Jakarta in 2017. (Photo: Konradus Epa/UCA News)
Indonesia's most notorious hardline group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), was officially disbanded at the end of last year. Its officials and members, however, are refusing to go quietly.
They started 2021 with a new group and with a slightly different name — the Islamic Unity Front, also known as FPI for short — but the same spirit, people and goals remain.
The question is whether, after all the legal pressure put on them, the new outfit will survive. That remains to be seen. The core of the matter is that the radicalism embodied in this notorious group and beyond has reached the age of maturity and can easily be transformed into new forms, even without any legalized structure.
Co-founded by now-jailed leader Muhammad Rizieq Syihab 23 years ago, the original FPI was banned due to its association with violence, long-standing disregard for democratic principles and alleged support for terrorist activities.
It was officially terminated at the end of last year through a joint decree signed by three ministers and the heads of several key institutions.
The Islamic Defenders Front is now on a list of banned mass organizations in Indonesia, the first of which under President Joko Widodo was Hizb ut Tahrir, which was outlawed in 2017.
Violence was associated with the group for a long time. It would not hesitate to intimidate or attack democracy activists, freedom of speech advocates or religious minority groups — Christians, Ahmadis, Shia and traditional religions.
They were often behind rallies against the establishment of new churches.
The government claimed that hundreds of FPI members had been convicted of various crimes while the public had branded the group as “thugs in religious outfits” rather than defenders of Islam.
A few weeks before the end came, group members were involved in a deadly police shooting in which six of them died. The case is still under investigation.
The most damning charge was terrorism. Authorities claimed that at least 35 former officials and regular members of FPI were part of a terrorism network.
Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD — President Joko Widodo's sharpshooter in fighting extremism — said many FPI members had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group in early 2015.
The government's decision to bar radical groups was the result of a scrupulous study, including their impacts on society and the economy.
Indonesian businessmen have expressed concerns over the impact of radical groups on investment. This could be seen with mass protests that forced many commercial centers to shut down temporarily for fear of being the target of attacks.
Fighting extremism has been one of Widodo's priorities since becoming president in 2014. For him, a peaceful society and investment are two sides of the same coin. He was aware that previous leaderships did not pay much attention to eradicating intolerance and radicalism.
A year before Widodo was elected president, and while still governor of Jakarta, a national congress organized by Hisb ut Tahrir attracted thousands of young people.
Despite the group being banned in many countries for its goal to establish an Islamic caliphate and not recognizing Indonesia’s secular ideology, the government did nothing.
Soon after Widodo was inaugurated, he launched several awareness campaigns on extremism through educational, religious and political institutions. The culmination was the dissolution of Hisb ut Tahrir in July 2017.
His re-election in 2019 naturally did not go down well with radical groups, particularly the Islamic Defenders Front, which saw the ax fall on Dec. 30, 2020, when it joined the communist party and Hizb ut Tahrir as a banned organization.
The FPI ban won public support, with many saying it came before it could transform itself into a gigantic extremist group.
It’s hoped the group’s demise will pave the way for the reform agenda of Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, who has emphasized promoting tolerance and interfaith harmony.
Qoumas, a respected member of Indonesia's largest moderate Islamic group Nahlatul Ulama and an avid supporter of Widodo, was sworn in as minister two days before Christmas.
His aims will be possible when all traces of the FPI are shut down. The government is highly aware of this and efforts to stamp out the group continue, including the freezing of all its accounts.
Indonesia's financial authorities recently deactivated 79 bank accounts belonging to the Islamic Defenders Front and its affiliates.
Radicalism has been an acute disease in Indonesia and is often exacerbated by the politicization of religion in the Muslim-majority nation.
Hence, efforts to subdue radical groups, even the smallest ones, are appreciated but must be followed by effective measures to prevent a similar group from indoctrinating millions of kind-hearted Muslims.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.