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Vigilante jihad: Inside Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front

Indonesia's Islamic, vigilante vice squad raids nightclubs, churches and more.

Indonesia, Islam, FPI, Islamic Defender's Front
A member of the Islamic Defender's Front, called in Indonesia Front Pembela Islam, or FPI, attends an anti-Israel protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta on Dec. 31, 2008. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: Vigilante Jihad writer Patrick Winn was interviewed in a GlobalPost Membership chat on Dec. 16. Members can view the chat here.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — It is forever dark in the core of Jembatan Besi, one of Jakarta’s most crowded slums. Even at high noon, only a narrow band of sunlight glows above a five-story canyon formed by closely built cement dwellings.

To slip into the narrowest walkways — crevices, really — locals must twist their bodies and shimmy sideways. Fluorescent lamps, slung from extension cords, light their path.

Still, according to the neighborhood holy man, it used to be worse. The crowding and poverty was once compounded by wickedness.

After the three-decade reign of strongman Gen. Suharto came to an end 12 years ago, society went wild with freedom, said Tubagus Muhammed Siddiq, 53, a white-robed Islamic scholar and Jembatan Besi native.

Throughout the island of Java, he said, prostitution, gambling and boozing crept from the shadows and into the streets. Inept police did nothing, he said.

“My neighborhood was one of the worst. Three straight blocks of gambling and drinking.” Siddiq said. “We had no choice. We were forced to jihad.”

With other fundamentalists around the city, Siddiq co-founded a vigilante network called the “Islamic Defenders Front.” Their legions of young, Muslim males torched brothels, ordered drinkers off the corners and beat back resisters with wooden rods.

Today, the Islamic Defenders Front is much more than a glorified neighborhood watch. They have positioned themselves as Indonesia’s moral police — a self-proclaimed, 15-million strong “pressure group” — sworn to rid Indonesia of sin.

“Society is diseased. Diseased with a social infection that violates Shariah,” Siddiq said in reference to Islamic law.

Indonesia is the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority nation, considered a leading light of moderate Islam by U.S. President Barack Obama, who spent four years in Jakarta as a child. Under its young democracy, the country has enjoyed more modernity, more transparency and a rising middle class.

But that same newfound freedom has tested it’s religious pluralism, which many Indonesians say is their country’s greatest strength.

"After evening prayers, they'd keep sweeping the city until dawn. It was a sort of dark justice."
- Jajang Jahroni, Islamic scholar

Freedom has allowed a hardline minority to seize the soapbox and harness the fury of Muslims distressed by rapid modernization. Their rank-and-file are young, low-income Muslim males compelled by the romance of jihad. The tolerant brand of Indonesian Islam extolled by the West is, in their eyes, simply more tolerant of evil.

Their targets? Nightclubs. Churches. Liberal Muslims. Embassies of foreign nations considered hostile to Islam.

In the last six months alone, the Islamic Defenders Front has successfully rallied to imprison the editor of Indonesia’s very tame version of Playboy Magazine, stabbed a Christian pastor nearly to death and raided Asia’s largest gay film festival in Jakarta.

The well-publicized mob attacks, led by hooded men shouting Arabic battle cries and glaring through ragged eyeholes, have become routine in Jakarta.

“We fear for Indonesia’s future,” Siddiq said.

But so do many ordinary Indonesian Muslims, who fear the Front will hijack Indonesia’s reputation for moderate Islam — while police and politicians stand idly by.

Dark Justice

The Indonesian archipelago first absorbed Islam around the 12th century from Arab traders. Today, however, the Middle East’s religious rigidity feels worlds removed from Indonesia’s more flexible incarnation of Islam, which in much of the country is infused with Hindu, Buddhist and Animist traditions.

Though the nation’s top Islamic body, the Ulema Council, forbids smoking in public, more than one-third of Indonesians consume cigarettes — many of them like mad. Despite a fatwa against Facebook flirting, Indonesians indulge in the social network more than any other country outside of the United States.

Mall rats match their hijabs to their sneakers. In much of the country, booze is sold openly. And while propriety keeps Jakarta’s nightlife from spilling into the street Bangkok-style, the capital’s partying is equally decadent behind closed doors.

Most tolerate modern frills and vice as the price of a free society. The Front sees a creeping cancer.

More on Indonesia:

Does Facebook lead to adultery? Court says no porn in Indonesia Forced church closings spike