Jakarta Globe | Insight
Hizbut Tahrir denounces democracy and dreams of establishing a global caliphate (kilafah) through a bloodless revolution. (Antara Photo/Mohamad Hamzah)

Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and the Caliphate Dream

Jakarta. Not many would guess that a fancy office complex in Tebet, South Jakarta, houses the headquarters of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, or HTI, the Islamist organization deemed a threat to Indonesia’s national unity and disbanded by the government in July.

HTI is the local chapter of pan-Islamic movement Hizbut Tahrir, which denounces democracy and dreams of establishing a global caliphate through a bloodless revolution.

Since its advent in the early 1980s, HTI encountered very little hostility from Indonesia’s mainstream political powers. Due to the organization’s anti-government rhetoric and growing influence at the grassroots level, many politicians saw in it a partner capable of attracting votes, especially ahead of regional polls.

However, the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo apparently could no longer bear the group’s presence and officially dismantled it on July 19 through a newly released government regulation in lieu of law that expands the power of the Ministry of Justice to dissolve mass organizations deemed a threat to the national security and unity.

After banning HTI, the government said it will also disband other organizations considered to contravene the state ideology of Pancasila.

Legal Defense, Political Fight

The Jakarta Globe visited the HTI headquarters on Aug. 4 and interviewed Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, one of the group’s most influential figures, who manages its public communication.

A large sign in front of the building, “Central Board of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia,” was covered with a black cloth. Inside, there were no pictures of Indonesia’s president and vice president, although it is common practice in the country to display them in office lobbies. There was no poster of the Pancasila eagle (Garuda Pancasila) either.

Five people were sitting at the office, and they did not seem busy. In the corner of a small room stood a medium-sized flag of the organization. Ismail arrived at the HTI office at 4.40 p.m., wearing a white, long-sleeved shirt. He looked relaxed.

“Until now we have not received a formal notice from the government, which means it should still be lawful [for us to operate]. But because the government has already announced it [HTI’s disbandment], we decided to close [the head office]. But actually, the one who has not followed the law is the government itself,” Ismail said.


Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, one of the group's most influential figures, who manages its public communication was talking to reporters on May 8, regarding the government's decision to dismantle the organization. (Antara Photo/Aprilio Akbar)
Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, one of the group’s most influential figures, who manages its public communication was talking to reporters on May 8, regarding the government’s decision to dismantle the organization. (Antara Photo/Aprilio Akbar)

According to the book “Hizbut Tahrir: Islam’s Political Insurgency” by Zeyno Baran, published by Washington-based public policy think-tank The Nixon Center in December 2004, Ismail joined HTI in 1985, while studying geology at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta.

“HTI will criticize everything that is not in line with Islamic teachings. That’s part of [the principle of] ‘amar ma’ruf nahi munkar‘ [prescribing what is right and prohibiting what is wrong],” Ismail said, adding that graft, gambling, illegal drugs, unfair exploitation of natural resources and colonization are among actions that contradict Islamic values and that HTI is fighting against.

“What is anti-Pancasila about that?” he said.

Although HTI is bitterly anti-Western, rejects democracy, capitalism, liberalism and pluralism, it eschews violence and opposes terrorism.

Many say, however, that its rhetoric is often inflammatory and tries to justify terrorist attacks as the results of Western oppression and a grand conspiracy contrived to destroy the image of Islam.

Ismail said HTI’s main activities revolve around preaching and proselytizing, or dakwah, organizing Koranic study groups, sermons, discussions and seminars. “That’s what we mostly do.”

He said the organization, after the ban, is now concentrating on a legal defense and a political fight.

HTI requested a judicial review of the government’s regulation, and the first hearing at the Constitutional Court was held on July 26. The organization also filed a lawsuit against the government to the State Administrative Court (PTUN) to recover its legal status.

During the court hearing, HTI lawyer Yusril Ihza Mahendra laid out a series of flaws within the new presidential regulation — often called the Perppu Ormas — used to justify the HTI ban. He said it enables the government to disband mass organizations accused of threatening the nation’s unity without giving them a chance to defend themselves.

“The ban was issued subjectively by the government, without a court process,” said Yusril, who is also known as an Islamic scholar and a founder of the Crescent Star Party (PBB). Right after the HTI ban was announced, PBB offered to help the organization to fight the case through the court against the government.

On the same day, Chief Security Minister Wiranto explained the case to journalists. He said the government has its own arguments to issue the ban.

“Let’s see who is right. The government has thoroughly analyzed the decision, reviewed all the pros and cons,” he said.

The minister, an influential voice behind the ban, called for an end to the debate over the regulation.

Wiranto reiterated what he said on July 19 when he announced the HTI ban, saying the organization was disbanded for threatening state ideology Pancasila and Indonesian unity, and for refusing to accept democratic values.

“It was evident from their leaders’ speeches that [HTI] didn’t fit with our democracy, didn’t fit with nationalistic values, didn’t fit with the Republic of Indonesia,” said the retired general, a former strongman in President Suharto’s New Order regime.

Wiranto did not explain which speeches he was referring to.

Chief Security Minister Wiranto is an influential voice behind the government's ban on Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. (Antara Photo/Rosa Panggabean)
Chief Security Minister Wiranto is an influential voice behind the government’s ban on Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. (Antara Photo/Rosa Panggabean)

HTI’s Ismail speculated the speeches Wiranto referred to might be ones that were captured on a video recording of an event held in 2007, when as the Indonesian arm of the international pan-Islamic organization, HTI was organized the International Khilafah [Caliphate] Conference at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta.

He said during the event, which he described as a “mass preaching” session, one cleric said embracing Pancasila is akin to syirik, or practicing idolatry, which is strictly forbidden in Islam.

“We asked the kyai [cleric] to give a tausyiah [sermon]. He said his words were based on his own beliefs, and he was not a member of HTI. This [speech] apparently was used as evidence [against us],” he said.

At that time, local media reported that at least 80,000 people attended the conference, which showed HTI’s growing influence.

From Ahok to Lady Gaga

Hizbut Tahrir was founded in Jerusalem in 1953 by Palestinian leader Taqiuddin an-Nahbani with the ultimate goal of re-establishing a pan-Islamic caliphate. It was introduced to Indonesia by Jordanian-Lebanese missionary Abdurrahman al-Baghdadi and its local chapter was formed in 1982.

Although HTI quickly acquired a strong following, especially on university campuses in Java and Sumatra, it only managed to sort out its legal status to become an officially registered organization in 2014.

Al-Baghdadi, who joined the organization in Australia, used to preach at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) campus, encouraging students to renounce nationalist causes in favor of the caliphate.

The organization has been banned in many Muslim countries. It operates legally in Israel and is not banned by the European Union, except for Germany.

In Indonesia, the organization had really started to spread its wings in the 1990s. As of today, Ismail said, HTI has branches in 34 provinces and 404 districts.

Although it remains predominantly campus-based, the organization had been involved in several mass demonstrations against the Chinese-Christian former governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.

Hizbut Tahrir has been banned in many Muslim countries. It operates legally in Israel and is not banned by the European Union, except for Germany. (Antara Photo/Irwansyah Putra)
Hizbut Tahrir has been banned in many Muslim countries. It operates legally in Israel and is not banned by the European Union, except for Germany. (Antara Photo/Irwansyah Putra)

During the interview, Ismail refused to speak about the organization’s structure or how it appoints its leaders.

“I will answer anything related to [our] ideology, that’s necessary for the public to know. But I will not explain our internal organization,” he said.

He was also unwilling to disclose the number of HTI members and sympathizers in Indonesia and only said the group was financed by donations from its members.

Ismail denied HTI has been trying to push its agenda in university campuses, but said he approved of Gema Pembebasan, a movement established in 2004 to spread Islamist ideology among Indonesian students at IPB, UGM and the University of Indonesia.

HTI was also behind the rally against Lady Gaga’s concert in Jakarta in 2012, and the 2013 Miss World pageant in Bali, claiming that the events were part of Western cultural imperialism and that they would contaminate Muslim identity. The famous American singer, known for her sartorial splendor, never performed in Indonesia after the incident.

The Caliphate 

According to Indonesian scholar Sumanto Al Qurtuby, an assistant professor of anthropology at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, it would be a mistake to consider HTI as merely a dakwah movement to proselytize Islam.

“Hizbut Tahrir is a political movement, not a dakwah one,” Sumanto said in Jakarta on July 22, adding that the group’s intention to merge all Muslim countries into one caliphate is clearly a political move.

He said that many of the organization’s followers have been manipulated by its use of Islamic symbols.

Sumanto said Hizbut Tahrir was established after the defeat of several Arab countries in a war with Israel and rode on the wave of frustration with rising nationalism and liberal Islam in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, according to the book “The Politics of Sharia Law From Indonesia to Nigeria” by Taufik Amal and Samsu Panggabean released in 2004, HTI and other local branches of pan-Islamic movements have been outshined by local, more radical groups, since the activities of the former carry too much of an internationalist flavor and failed to create real political power.

With additional reporting by Yustinus Paat and Robertus Wardi