Indonesian Radicals on a Ramadan Holiday      
      Written by Van Zorge Report     
      Thursday, 25 September 2008  
      The Islamic Defenders Front seems to have lightened up on 'evil' this 
fasting month. Why? 

      It is Ramadan, so where is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Indonesia's 
self-appointed enforcers of virtue? In past years during the Muslim fasting 
month, dozens of white robed and skullcap-clad cadres of the FPI have regularly 
descended on bars, brothels and nightclubs to "remind" proprietors and patrons 
to respect the holy month by refraining from activities considered haram, or 
illegal, under Islamic law.

      This Ramadan, however, the FPI has been conspicuously absent, and 
Jakarta's raucous nightlife seems to be continuing largely unabated. 

      The FPI's leaders say the group is currently "consolidating," but 
maintain that it has not diminished its activities even as its two most 
prominent members remain in detention. Habib Rizieq Shihab, the FPI's leader, 
and Munarman, the head of the FPI's militant, stick-wielding wing, are 
currently standing trial for inciting followers to attack participants of a 
June 1, 2008 rally in favor of pluralism and religious tolerance at the 
National Monument, or Monas, in central Jakarta. 

      "The FPI's activities are continuing as normal," Rizieq told the Van 
Zorge Report in an exclusive interview from his Jakarta Metro Police "jail 
cell" - the Middle Eastern carpeting, assorted Islamic magazines and books, air 
conditioning and computer make it feel more like the reading room of a 
well-funded Islamic boarding school. "In fact, the FPI's activities have 
increased in frequency with me and Munarman here. Just a few days ago, hundreds 
of people went to the Presidential Palace to protest." 

      Rizieq said he remains in control of the organization despite his 
detention. His array of mobile phones and the lack of restrictions on visits 
give his claim credence. 

      So why, if it's business as usual for the Islamic defenders this Ramadan 
season, would they tolerate the continued operation of centers of maksiat, the 
term for the whole gamut of vices from prostitution to drinking? The relative 
calm of the organization this season is all the more striking when one 
considers that it has made its annual "sweeping" of such places the centerpiece 
of its effort to cultivate an image of the FPI as the true defender of Islam 
from what it sees as the pernicious influence of Western decadence and 

      Ahmad Suaedy, executive director of the moderate Wahid Institute, was a 
participant in the June 1 rally that the FPI violently dispersed. According to 
him, the audacity of that attack, which injured scores of peaceful rally 
supporters - some seriously - forced an otherwise weak-kneed government to take 
action against the FPI. 

      "The president needs the support of Islamic parties like the PKS, PPP and 
PBB," said Suaedy referring to three prominent Muslim parties. "They control 
the religious agenda." 

      This, he said, has left President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono unwilling to 
take actions that might possibly be construed as "anti-Islamic." But an attack 
on a peaceful rally - on Pancasila Day, the holiday that commemorates the state 
ideology enshrining religious tolerance - left Yudhoyono and the National 
Police with little choice but to take action against the FPI. 

      Rizieq counters that the FPI's shift away from sweeping does not 
constitute a tacit admission that the group has crossed a line, but rather that 
it is a calculated decision based on the FPI's previous successes at putting 
vice elimination on the national government agenda. The fact that the 
government has issued new regulations on nightlife during Ramadan is a victory 
the FPI is quick to claim. Those regulations, he said, provide the FPI with a 
legal instrument through which to lobby the government for greater action. 

      "We have already protested to the government about places staying open 24 
hours, but there are already regulations in place, so the FPI does not need to 
take additional action." 

      The new regulations have indeed shortened the hours in which compliant 
bars and nightclubs operate. This may crimp the style of the night-long party 
crowd, and finding the cocktail list at local watering holes may require asking 
for the "non-Ramadan" menu. 

      Moreover, there are scattered reports of roundups of local prostitutes 
and drive-by attempts to let it be known to would-be Ramadan partiers in bar 
districts that they are indeed being watched. 

      Still, those in search of wine and revelry need not stray too far from 
their normal routines. Local bar owners, for their part, remain cautiously 
confident that the high tide of Ramadan raids has past. 

      A more compelling explanation for the FPI's change of tactics probably 
lies in the changing dynamics of its relationship with the state. Rizieq 
described the five-step procedure the FPI's various branch offices must follow 
when deciding which places to target. 

      The process involves first receiving a request from local citizens that 
the FPI pay attention to activity in a certain area, which the FPI then follows 
up with an investigation by its intelligence wing, Badan Intelijen Front. The 
FPI then submits an initial report and another follow-up report to the 
appropriate levels of government, gives the government an ultimatum and then 
and only then can it make a raid. No less importantly, the FPI chooses places 
where it minimizes its risk of "horizontal conflict" with other groups. 

      This last criterion ultimately appears to be the most restrictive. In 
fact, the FPI have found that their Ramadan anti-vice campaigns threaten not 
just conflict with local gangs that benefit from nightlife activities, but also 
the protection rackets and criminal collaborations that keep the Jakarta 
police's pockets lined. 

      "The FPI opposes all preman [street gangs] and all mafia," Rizieq said, 
"and the police are the biggest mafia." 

      Much has changed since the late 1990s when the FPI emerged under the 
alleged stewardship of former Army chief and presidential candidate Gen. (ret.) 
Wiranto in order to weaken the student-led reform movement. While FPI leaders 
still boast support from elements within the state security apparatus - police 
complicity in the FPI's destruction of a number of mosques belonging to the 
Ahmadiyah sect would lend some credibility to these claims - the direct 
financial and logistical backing of non-state thugs that was a hallmark of the 
Suharto era and early reformasi period is increasingly a no-no in democratic 

      Rather than risk clashes with local gangs, and rather than backing the 
police into a confrontation, the FPI has instead opted to try to establish 
authority and legitimacy as the most "authentically" Islamic entity in the 
country by substituting increasingly fiery rhetoric for action that might bring 

      Referring to the June 1 Monas attack, Rizieq proclaimed, "The FPI didn't 
go too far. [The pro-pluralism rally members] went too far. That rally was an 
American creation. The Monas incident was just the beginning. In the future, 
there won't be any more American agents in Indonesia." 

      Rizieq and Munarman say they are in the process of forming a political 
party - never mind that the deadline to register for the 2009 elections has 
already passed. The existing Islamic parties, they claim, have lost legitimacy 
because none is truly based 100 percent on Islam. The FPI's tentatively named 
"Islamic Revolutionary Party," on the other hand, will bring together a who's 
who of radical, intolerant and uncompromisingly anti-democratic organizations 
in Indonesia. 

      Who knows, said Rizieq, "we could field [alleged Jemaah Islamiyah 
terrorist group spiritual leader Abu Bakar] Bashir as our presidential 
candidate . and Munarman could be minister of defense." 

      Common sense would suggest that this is an unreasonable goal in a country 
where Muslim parties have always struggled, and where even the hard-line Muslim 
Prosperous Justice Party has had to soften its tone in order to gain a foothold 
in the current political scene. An anti-democratic, revanchist party headed by 
the country's top terrorist guru may prove more than the Indonesian people can 

      The tide of public and official opinion may have already begun to shift 
against the FPI and like-minded thugs. Rizieq could not come up with an answer 
as to when the new political party would be formed, but it will come, Munarman 
finally quipped, "when we get out of jail." 

      This article is reprinted with the permission of the Van Zorge Report


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