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Indonesia's jihadi vigilantism

Date and Time: 
Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 12:00 - 12:30

Indonesia's Islamic Defenders Front is a self-proclaimed moral police, a 15-million person strong “pressure group” sworn to rid the world's largest Muslim population of sin.Led by hooded men shouting Arabic battle cries, they target nightclubs, churches, liberal Muslims and embassies of countries considered hostile to Islam. GlobalPost's Patrick Winn just completed an investigation of the Islamic Defenders Front. On Thursday Dec. 16 at noon Eastern time, Patrick participated in one of GlobalPost's Web Chats. 

 

00:12

GlobalPost

Hi everyone, welcome to another edition of GlobalPostMembership Web Chats.

00:12

GlobalPost

We are joined today by the indefatigable Patrick Winn, our Senior Correspondent for Southeast Asia.

00:12

GlobalPost

Patrick is based in Bangkok but recently returned from a trip to Jakarta where he explored the origins and influence of the Islamic Defender’s Front, a sort of urban vigilante vice squad most famous for smashing up nightclubs.

00:12

GlobalPost

The Front, however, has become more influential in recent years and has expanded its targets to include other religions and government policies.

00:12

GlobalPost

Patrick spent time with the group’s leader and visited the Jakarta slum where it all began.

00:13

GlobalPost

Patrick, thanks for being here!

00:13

Patrick_Winn

Thrilled to be here

00:13

GlobalPost

So just want the audience to know that right now this is unmoderated chat

00:13

GlobalPost

so feel free to throw out any questions you have at any time.

00:13

GlobalPost

To begin:

     

00:14

GP-ChatHost

What exactly is the Islamic defenders fromnt?

     

00:14

GP-ChatHost

(We're having some tech problems)

00:14

Patrick_Winn

Well, they call themselves a pressure group

00:14

Patrick_Winn

But they're actually more of an Islamic vigilante squad

00:15

Patrick_Winn

Any group -- be it a church, nightclub, gay rights org, etc -- that's deemed a threat to Islamic piety

00:15

Patrick_Winn

They feel empowered to attack them

00:15

Patrick_Winn

Typically with young men in white robes screaming "allah akbar" and swinging bamboo sticks

00:16

Patrick_Winn

They don't always beat people up -- sometimes the sight of them sends people running

00:16

Patrick_Winn

But they often do hurt their "targets"

00:16

GlobalPost

You met the leader of the Front at his home, right?

00:16

GlobalPost

What was that like?

00:16

GlobalPost

What kind of neighborhood is he from?

00:16

Patrick_Winn

He's actually a co-founder, but yes

00:16

Patrick_Winn

It's a slum by any description

00:16

Patrick_Winn

open sewers, extremely crowded, noisy

00:17

Patrick_Winn

he said it's one of the most crowded slums in Jakarta

00:17

Patrick_Winn

You know, he was quite kind and considerate

00:17

Patrick_Winn

We drank tea and ate figs and sat on the floor most of the afternoon

00:17

Patrick_Winn

which gave me horrible leg cramps btw

00:18

Patrick_Winn

He has a very hardline agenda

00:18

dlie

It has been a while since I have been in Indonesia, but my impression is this type of intolerant Islam is on the fringes. Is this changing?

00:18

Patrick_Winn

But this particular man, at least, I think he really thinks attacking these "targets"

00:18

Patrick_Winn

actually does them a favor - it leads them into a more pious life

00:18

Patrick_Winn

I still think it's on the fringes

00:19

Patrick_Winn

consider this...

00:19

Patrick_Winn

a political party that promotes shariah law only won about 7 percent in the last election

00:19

Patrick_Winn

they were expected to do much better

00:19

Patrick_Winn

if that's what people wanted -- a more fundamentalist islamic society -- this party would have done better, right?

00:20

GlobalPost

So, if that's true, if Indonesia is still a moderate country. Why is the Islamic Defender's Front still tolerated?

00:20

Patrick_Winn

Couple reasons

00:20

Patrick_Winn

Imagine if a U.S. politician went after a fundamentalist Christian group

00:20

Patrick_Winn

tried to stop them from rallying

00:20

Patrick_Winn

it probably would hurt his/her political career

00:21

Patrick_Winn

Indonesia is even more Muslim than the U.S. is Christian

00:21

Patrick_Winn

and trying to ban them would come off as politically unpalatable

00:21

Patrick_Winn

they're also quite close with certain senior police and military figures

00:21

Patrick_Winn

and that gives them a certain sense of impunity

00:22

Patrick_Winn

I'll add some more details about the leader I met

00:22

Patrick_Winn

You might expect it would be like interviewing a "terrorist"

00:23

Patrick_Winn

He doesn't see himself that way at all

00:23

Patrick_Winn

He considers himself more of a community organizer

00:23

milesahead

how sustainable is this, however? they may have some indirect political protection (as you point out), and ties to local police. But doesn't this threaten the long-term reputation of Indonesia as a moderate home of Islam?

00:23

Patrick_Winn

I would say that it does

00:23

Patrick_Winn

certainly when we're talking reputation

00:24

Patrick_Winn

I worry that some people will skim my story and decide Indonesia is becoming more fundamentalist

00:24

Patrick_Winn

I don't think that's the case

00:24

Patrick_Winn

But at a glance, when these guys make news and go out beating people with sticks

00:24

Patrick_Winn

It lends the impression to an outsider...

00:24

Patrick_Winn

... that Indonesia is becoming more hardline, more violent

00:25

GlobalPost

Has there been any backlash from the general public against the group?

00:25

Patrick_Winn

Yes

00:25

Patrick_Winn

The calls to "ban" them is growing louder

00:25

Patrick_Winn

The people I met casually in Jakarta almost spit when they talk about them

00:25

dlie

Do the attacks occur in upscale parts of the city or are they confined to the poorer slum areas?

00:26

Patrick_Winn

(Though they're more tolerated in lower-class areas)

00:26

Patrick_Winn

In the beginning, it was all about ridding the slums of vice

00:26

Patrick_Winn

Now they take on more high-profile targets

00:26

Patrick_Winn

So, yes, that means nightlife strips that Westerners go to

00:27

Patrick_Winn

But one of their most famous attacks was at Jakarta's national monumnet

00:27

Patrick_Winn

that's like an attack on the lawn in d.c.

00:27

Patrick_Winn

again, they don't always beat people up - sometimes they jsut show up and everyone scatters

00:27

Patrick_Winn

you would probably run if you saw them coming

00:28

GlobalPost

Is there much cross-over between the Islamic Defender's Front and other hardline groups in Indonesia? Is there any relationship, say, between the Front and domestic terror organizations?

00:28

GP-ChatHost

Or what about Al Qaeda?

00:28

Patrick_Winn

If there is, I'm not aware of it - and it's not much in the public sphere

00:28

Patrick_Winn

actually, a scholar i talked to said they take pains to avoid those connections

00:28

Patrick_Winn

indonesia is pretty serious about cracking down on the real terrorists

00:29

Patrick_Winn

this scholar even said that Osama bin Laden offered support in the early years

00:29

Patrick_Winn

we took that out of the story

00:29

Patrick_Winn

because we weren't sure if it was authentic

00:29

Patrick_Winn

Could just be a group leader bragging to this scholar/author

00:30

GlobalPost

Is part of the problem maybe that Indonesia has bigger fish to fry? That they can't be bothered to deal with the Front when there are groups like Jemaah Islamiyah still around?

00:30

Patrick_Winn

Hmmm

00:30

Patrick_Winn

I don't think so

00:30

Patrick_Winn

I think the army is very serious about nabbing the real terrorists

00:31

Patrick_Winn

The government would never, never be seen publicly meeting with these guys

00:31

Patrick_Winn

But they're happy to attend parties thrown by the Islamic Def Front

00:31

Patrick_Winn

(alcohol-free parties of course)

00:31

GlobalPost

How big is the Front? How many members do they have? And what, generally, is their makeup? Mostly young? Mostly male?

00:31

Patrick_Winn

There's not a clear answer on that

00:32

Patrick_Winn

They claim 15 million supporters

00:32

Patrick_Winn

I don't think anyone really believes it's that high

00:32

Patrick_Winn

even though indonesia has about 220 million (i think)

00:32

dlie

An Iranian mullah once said to me about the mandatory headscarf "This too will pass." Sounds like this applies to the front.

00:32

Patrick_Winn

I don't think they'll go away that easily

00:32

Patrick_Winn

Indonesia is developing very fast

00:32

Patrick_Winn

And that's juxtaposed with a lot of people who are still very poor

00:33

Patrick_Winn

I sense a class frustration element in the front, particularly in their rank-and-file

00:33

Patrick_Winn

to answer your earlier questions....

00:33

Patrick_Winn

The guys that go rampaging are young, lower-class

00:33

GlobalPost

I have they developed any kind of political foothold? They seem to have a pretty well-organized propaganda arm at least? Have they been able to influence government policy at all?

00:34

Patrick_Winn

Yes

00:34

Patrick_Winn

Consider a 2006 anti-pornography law

00:34

Patrick_Winn

They were one of the loudest voicest campaigning for this law

00:34

Patrick_Winn

It was understood that they might wreak a bit of havoc if the law didn't go their way

00:34

Patrick_Winn

it's not just law though - it's little things

00:35

Patrick_Winn

Like Pam Anderson wanted to donate 25k from modeling nude in Playboy

00:35

Patrick_Winn

to disaster relief

00:35

Patrick_Winn

They put it out there that accepting her money was "haram" (forbidden)

00:35

Patrick_Winn

And people were scared to accept it

00:35

Patrick_Winn

So their threats are taken seriously and often heeded

00:36

GlobalPost

You mention in your story that during the time of Suharto, Islamic groups were not free to fully express themselves or participate in politics. Is the emergence of the Front, perhaps, strangely, an example of the strength of Indonesia's democracy?

00:36

Patrick_Winn

It's evidence of how messy democracy can be

00:36

Patrick_Winn

This is a real voice in Indonesian society

00:36

Patrick_Winn

And they're making themselves heard

00:37

Patrick_Winn

Even though this voice, so to speak, can't seem to get the power in parliament that it achieves on the streets

00:37

GlobalPost

You talk to a lawmaker in your story who is against the Front. But has had little success

00:37

GlobalPost

bringing others into the fold

00:37

GlobalPost

why is that?

00:37

Patrick_Winn

Well, her party i believe is the second largest in parliament

00:38

Patrick_Winn

So that suggests more voters are in line with her beliefs

00:38

Patrick_Winn

But she can't muster enough support to ban them

00:38

Patrick_Winn

For reasons I listed above

00:38

Patrick_Winn

Cracking down on any Muslim group is taboo

00:38

Patrick_Winn

And they have their well-placed police and military sources

00:39

GlobalPost

So what do you think is the future for this group?

00:39

Patrick_Winn

There are signs that they aren't doing to well leadership wise

00:39

Patrick_Winn

There appears to be a changing of the guard

00:39

Patrick_Winn

I know of this largely through local media reports - the guy i met with...

00:39

Patrick_Winn

... refused to talk about it

00:40

Patrick_Winn

But their spiritual leader is physically ill

00:40

Patrick_Winn

And there are satellite chapters running amok

00:40

Patrick_Winn

They'll "freeze" these satellites

00:40

Patrick_Winn

But these groups go out and wreak havoc anyway

00:40

Patrick_Winn

I wrote about a church pastor's stabbing...

00:40

Patrick_Winn

... that was the work of a satellite chapter

00:41

GlobalPost

so the leadership seems to be losing control?

00:41

Patrick_Winn

It seems that way

00:41

Patrick_Winn

The local press

00:41

Patrick_Winn

...

00:41

Patrick_Winn

Has a report suggesting that they'll become a "brand"

00:41

Patrick_Winn

That people adopt for a number of means

00:41

Patrick_Winn

could be an actual attempt at piety...

00:42

Patrick_Winn

... could be just an extortion racket

00:42

Patrick_Winn

But what we know...

00:42

Patrick_Winn

Is that the brand is very strong and conveys a lot of fear in Indonesia these days

00:42

GlobalPost

Okay, thanks Patrick so much. We are going to be wrapping this up unless there are any final questions from the audience.

00:42

Patrick_Winn

Please... anything!

00:43

GP-ChatHost

Have a Khaw Phat for us, Patrick!

00:43

GP-ChatHost

Kung!

00:43

Patrick_Winn

You bet I will.. though I'll probably wait til morning

00:43

GP-ChatHost

Thanks everyone. Talk to you next week. Or after the holiday.

00:43

Patrick_Winn

Thanks!