Jakarta. If there is one thing the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, is often associated with, it is violence. The group is notorious for attacking entertainment venues, assaults on individuals it considers too “liberal,” and mob attacks against members of religious minorities across Indonesia.
This ruthlessness, however, was nowhere to be found at the organization’s headquarters in the densely populated Petamburan neighborhood in Central Jakarta, where the Jakarta Globe met recently with some FPI members and sympathizers.
Over cups of coffee at a stall just next to the gruop’s headquarters, spokesman Slamet Maarif talked about the organization, its history and goals.
FPI was founded in August 1998 by Rizieq Shihab, better known as “Habib Rizieq,” and cleric Misbahul Anam, when the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, known for ruthlessly suppressing Muslim groups, enabled Islamic politics to gain momentum. Radical movements were able to exploit the opportunities and freedoms brought about by the country’s democratization.
Rizieq is a firebrand Islamist cleric who studied in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His followers believe he is a descendant of Prophet Muhammad. In Indonesia, the descendants, or habaib (plural of habib), are usually held in great respect. Misbahul, on the other hand, was born in Brebes, Central Java, in a family with strong connections to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organization.
When the group first organized in 1998, FPI helped the state apparatus suppress student protests and was part of the “Pam Swakarsa” paramilitary group, which also had strong connections to the military, according to the 2004 scholarly book titled “The Politics of Sharia” by Taufik Adnan Amal and Samsu Rizal Panggabean.
After the 1998 reforms following Suharto’s downfall, many believed that senior figures within the police and military intentionally preserved FPI to serve as the state’s “attack dog” to combat gambling, prostitution and other social issues plaguing certain communities in the capital. The group also helped certain politicians attract new voters.
The FPI claims it is doing a service for the public to press for “amar ma’ruf nahi munkar,” an Arabic saying that means supporting what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong.
“Amar ma’ruf” essentially entails “dakwah,” or preaching, something which has long been the centerpiece of other Muslim groups in the country, including the moderate NU and Muhammadiyah.
“Back in 1998, we saw there was one field of struggle that no one dared to hold onto. That was ‘nahi munkar,'” FPI spokesman Slamet told the Globe. “We took that part, so we can team up with NU and Muhammadiyah.”
Nahi munkar in turn entails expressive actions, not only words.
“Let NU and Muhammadiyah plant the rice, FPI will control the pests,” Slamet said, adding that his group had close relations with NU. “There has even been a saying that the FPI is NU, only a little bit naughty.”
The FPI’s nahi munkar turned into countless vigilante raids across the country on businesses and locations the group deemed “hotbeds for vice,” with stick-wielding members often destroying properties and harassing members of the public deemed “un-Islamic.”
In his 2003 book, titled “FPI Dialogue: Amar Ma’ruf Nahi Munkar,” FPI leader Rizieq justified such raids as “commendable violence” against “structural and systematic vice.”
“If the pest is a pig, should we arrive empty-handed?” Slamet asked, chuckling.
Slamet explained that the FPI leadership later drew up a strict set of requirements for its members to carry out raids, as well as a list of prohibited actions during operations.
Nevertheless, it is widely believed that FPI members accept bribes from bar owners and others so their places of business can avoid being raided. Slamet, however, denied the accusations.
But he did admit that there have been FPI members found to have breached the group’s self-prescribed code of conduct, which forbids extortion, robbery and looting, as stated in Rizieq’s book.
“We cannot deny such cases have ever taken place,” Slamet said, citing the Investigations Front, one of four special bodies within the FPI. “Their member cards were retracted. They were dismissed.”
Such raids are carried out by members of the Islamic Defenders Troop (LPI), one of four wings of the FPI, with help from the Ma’siat Watch, another of the four autonomous bodies of the FPI that is tasked with keeping an eye on “immoral” places or businesses across Indonesia.
However, the group has been accused of spreading violence in its wake. In 2001, the group protested in front of the US Embassy in Jakarta, with FPI members threatening to destroy the building and kill the US ambassador in response to the United States declaring war on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks.
In 2003, Rizieq was sentenced to seven months imprisonment on charges of inciting hatred due to his role in conducting raids on nightclubs and hotels in Jakarta in 2002 in search of American tourists to harass.
In 2006, FPI attacked the office of Playboy Indonesia in South Jakarta due to what the group believed was lewd content, even though the magazine abstained from publishing any nude pictures, for which its sister publication, the US-based Playboy, is widely known.
Two years later, FPI and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), another hardline Islamist group recently disbanded by the government, ambushed a peaceful rally held by National Alliance for Freedom of Faith and Religion (AKKBB) activists to commemorate the 63rd year of Pancasila, the state ideology, injuring many.
The Softer Side of FPI
Apart from pressing for the amar ma’ruf nahi munkar, Slamet said FPI’s main activities include promoting Islam through preaching, encouraging Muslims to wage jihad, or Islamic holy war, and pushing for the implementation of Sharia law in the country.
FPI currently boasts three million followers and an additional four million sympathizers, whose backgrounds range from academia, law and sales, Slamet claimed.
The group follows the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islamic law, similar to other mainstream Muslims in the country, and their activities, like holding religious seminars and Koranic study sessions, can be attractive to mainstream Muslims.
“It is undeniable that the FPI is a dakwah movement, because the founders of FPI are da’i (preachers), ulema and mubaligh (religious experts),” said Slamet, who is also a lecturer at Muhammadiyah University of Prof. Dr. Hamka (UHAMKA) in South Jakarta.
Slamet said that leading Muslim figures in the country have attended FPI events, including the late Hasyim Muzadi of NU and Muhammadiyah leader Din Syamsuddin.
The spokesman also said jihad should not be associated with suicide bombing, a popular tactic for Islamist militants fighting in Syria, especially when victims are fellow Muslims.
“Terrorism is not condoned by Islamic teachings, in any way. There are rules for waging jihad,” Slamet said.
FPI gained momentum in the run-up to the Jakarta gubernatorial election earlier this year, which pitted incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, ethnically Chinese, versus former education minister Anies Baswedan. During the campaign season, FPI and HTI organized a series of rallies in Jakarta to call for the ouster and arrest of Ahok after the latter made lighthearted comments about a Koranic verse.
Ahok lost that election in April, and has since been arrested for blasphemy, for which he is serving a two year prison sentence. Slamet said the goal of those rallies was to make the public aware that Islamic teachings forbid Muslims to elect an infidel, or non-believer, as their leader.
“We were fighting in the recent election, not sabotaging democracy. Instead, wherever there were pulpits, we said, ‘come, come, vote for a Muslim leader, don’t be abstain’. If we withdraw ourselves, they will be keep in power,” he said.
Slamet said FPI seeks to leverage its influence by pushing for the implementation of Sharia law in the country. However, he claimed, the group still adheres and respects Pancasila, and does not seek to replace the democratically elected government with a pan-Islamic caliphate.
“We don’t want Indonesia to disappear. We are still within the republic, under Pancasila,” he said.
On a more constitutional basis, Slamet said FPI is pushing for Indonesia to reinstate the Jakarta Charter, which was a modified version of Pancasila that contained an obligation for Muslims to follow Islamic law. That addition was eventually thrown out after Indonesia’s declaration of independence following a consultation with Muslim leaders across the archipelago.
“Even the 1945 Constitution itself can be amended. Why can the Jakarta Charter not be reinstated? I think this is not a dream […] This is not impossible,” Slamet said, adding that religious minorities would be still be protected under the charter’s provisions.
“Wherever Islam is the majority, minorities will be protected. On the contrary, wherever Islam is the minority, Islam will be oppressed. So non-Muslims don’t need to be afraid if the Jakarta Charter is eventually brought back in place. While for Muslims, it will be weird if Muslims themselves are afraid of Sharia,” he said.
Leaders Implicated With Criminal Cases
Despite the group’s increasing popularity, FPI’s leaders continue to be bogged down by criminal investigations. In January 2017, Rizieq was named by police a suspect in an investigation over allegations the firebrand cleric insulted Pancasila in a documentary he was filming about the country’s first president, Sukarno.
Probably the best known criminal case, though, surfaced after an alleged WhatsApp conversation between Rizieq and a female follower, named Firza Husein, leaked online. In the correspondence, nude pictures and lewd sexual messages were exchanged.
However, civil society advocates have criticized the police for investigating Rizieq on pornography charges instead of pursuing a hate speech case against the leader, which some critics say would be more damaging to his reputation.
“If the political goal is to nullify the FPI, then it’s a serious miscalculation,” Ian Wilson, a lecturer in politics and security studies and a research fellow at Murdoch University’s Asia Research Center in Perth, Australia, said as quoted by the New York Times.
Indeed, Wilson noted that Rizieq had served two previous prison sentences for inciting hatred. “Each time he’s spent time in jail, the organization has grown, the martyrdom complex has grown, as has the perception that he is someone who is willing to sacrifice for the cause,” he said, as quoted by the Times.
The list of criminal cases implicating Rizieq appear not to taint his image among his followers.
“He is a good preacher with exceptional knowledge. He is smart, and he has what many do not have, a braveness. He only fears Allah […] Sami’na wa atho’na [we hear and we obey],” Slamet said.
“Habib Rizieq remains our supreme commander.”