JAKARTA, Indonesia — They call themselves the Islamic Defenders Front and they say their mission is to stamp out sinful acts and to protect the poor and marginalized.
But the majority of Indonesians in this moderate Muslim nation call them thugs. They say the FPI, as they are known here, are tarnishing the image of both Islam and Indonesia.
In only the last few months the group has been accused of attacking churches, raiding suspected communist conferences and waging assaults against minority religions.
A showdown took place in the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi earlier this month when a stick-wielding mob of FPI members attacked and beat around 20 members of the Batak Christian Protestant Church.
And through it all, Indonesia’s secular government has largely stood idly by and, in some cases, offered support. In most cases the country’s leaders have remained silent, even as FPI attacks grow increasingly frequent and increasingly violent.
The FPI argues that the Batak congregation is worshipping without the proper government permits and is threatening Muslim society by proselytizing.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice chairman of the Setara Institute, which works to promote democracy and peace, said the FPI is using the threat of Christianization to strengthen their position, to gain sympathy and spread their ideology to their followers.
According to a recent study by the institute, acts of violence against Christians are on the rise, which could signal that religious tensions, which always seem to be simmering in Indonesia, are coming to a boil.
“Some politicians in the West use Indonesia as a model of moderate Islam, but behind the surface the embryo of intolerance still exists,” Naipospos said. “And if the Indonesian government doesn’t do something, this embryo will get stronger.”
During an Islamic congress in June, FPI leader Habib Rizieq said evangelicals were Christianizing Muslims by offering them social services like free health care and education. They were also performing hypnosis and constructing illegal churches, he said.
Murhali Barda, the leader of the FPI’s Bekasi branch, had been preparing for a clash.
“My Muslim brothers...!!! Come to Ciketing..!!” He wrote on his Facebook page the day before the attack. “Help our brothers that were walked all over by the Batak people … church business people, moneylenders, pig and dog eaters!”
Angry tweets began trending on Twitter after news of the attack broke, just one among many in recent weeks. Forced church closures and protests against community activity, such as the butchering of pigs, have also made recent headlines.
The occasion forced Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to break his silence on FPI’s attacks. The president, however, said only that anarchic behavior would not be permitted during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“But it is permitted,” said Sidney Jones, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, which monitors security issues. “The easiest thing would be to arrest the perpetrators, and it’s not clear to me why they have refrained from doing so.”
In 2008, following an assault on a peaceful rally in support of religious freedom, police did arrest nearly 60 FPI members, including Rizieq. The FPI kingpin was later sentenced to 18 months in prison for helping organize the attack against the supporters of Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect many conservative Muslims consider heretical since they refuse to accept Mohammad as Islam’s final prophet.
But the arrests were mostly a response to public outrage. And while the government stopped short of completely banning the Ahmadis as the FPI had demanded, it did issue a ministerial decree prohibiting Ahmadis from practicing their faith or proselytizing in public, appearing to again side with religious hardliners instead of religious pluralists.
Jones said it was unacceptable that the Indonesian police and military have stood by and let these attacks continue. Individuals in the FPI should be prosecuted for assault, but the police should also be held responsible, she said.
Both Jakarta’s governor and one of its police chiefs attended the FPI’s 12th-anniversary celebration earlier this month in what is thought to have been an attempt to enlist the group’s material, and perhaps political, support.
And even though the Religious Affairs Ministry in March named the FPI among nearly 70 potentially illegal sects because its actions deviated from the country’s accepted Islamic teachings, the government still took no action against the group.
Started with police and military backing in 1998, the FPI was originally part of a group of street-level militias aimed at countering the student-led, democratic reform movement and providing security to then-president B.J. Habibie. The FPI has since gained notoriety for conducting vigilante crackdowns on “un-Islamic” activities, which, before recently, usually only involved aggressive raids on bars and nightclubs during Ramadan.
FPI members say their actions are not antagonistic to Islam and that they are merely upholding their duty to rid society of sin.
“FPI has one mission and one vision, and that is to eliminate tyranny and to enforce truth and justice,” said H. Chep Hernawan, head of the Islamic Reform Movement. “Our ulemas [Muslim scholars] and Muslim warriors are the ones who fought against the colonizers. So, I think it’s normal if we want to enforce Islamic law.”
The FPI are not religious crusaders, however. Ian Wilson, a researcher of radical groups-cum-gangs at Australia’s Murdock University, said its members frame issues in religious terms but are not on the same page ideologically as Islamic terrorist organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah.
“Their whole rationale is to stir up trouble … to be in the public eye,” he said.
Barda, who wears a wrap-around skirt and white skullcap often associated with conservative Islam, said FPI’s activities in Bekasi are based on the wishes of the community, which it works to coordinate and strengthen against people who might pose threats, namely the Christian Batak, an ethnic group originally from the neighboring island of Sumatra.
For more than a month the Batak congregation has been praying in a field in Ciketing, on the outskirts of Jakarta, where demonstrators meet them each Sunday demanding they cease prayers and leave the area.
Christian groups must have the consent of the surrounding community to establish a place of worship, and the hardliners say they are fighting the Batak because they refuse to abide by the law.
But when asked about rumors of declining membership numbers among the FPI, Barda, who likes speaking in idioms, only laughed. He said all he needs to do is produce a magnet and the nails will come to him.
“We are small, but we have many supporters,” he said.