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Vigilante jihad: Inside Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front

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


Their argument echoes the 1980s “Moral Majority” movement, backed by U.S. pastors seeking Bible-inspired laws for a majority Christian nation. Likewise, the Front demands Islamic piety and Quranic law for Indonesia, where more than 85 percent of the country’s 240 million citizens identify as Muslim.

The vigilantes are best known for their so-called “sweeps.” Karaoke dives and pubs, particularly those operating during the holy month of Ramadan, are told to shut down.

Those that refuse face a screaming mob clad in white robes. They rush out of trucks by the hundreds, screaming Allah’s name, rods clenched in raised fists. Their sheer numbers often overwhelm security guards or hired heavies defending nightclubs.

“The first time I saw this, I was at their headquarters at around 9 p.m. Dozens were returning from sweeping the city with blood all over their jubas [white robes],” said Jajang Jahroni, an Islamic scholar and author of “Defending the Majesty of Islam,” an academic examination of the group.

“They said, ‘We’ve just done jihad! Our cuts and wounds will be witness to our struggle in the hereafter!’” Jahroni said. “After evening prayers, they’d keep sweeping the city until dawn. It was a sort of dark justice.”

At the dawn of the 21st century, there was much vice to sweep.

Indonesia was redefining itself after the 1998 fall of Suharto, who suppressed both communism and organized Islam as threats during his three-decade iron rule. Street clerics were forced to register with the government. Muslims were jailed on flimsy charges of agitating for an Islamic caliphate.

When the economy tailspinned in the late 1990s, Suharto’s grip loosened. Repressed grudges and desires were satisfied violently in the streets. The poor rioted against the rich, namely well-off ethnic Chinese. More than 1,200 were killed and an estimated 160-plus women were raped.

Vice also flourished, particularly in poor communities. “We were like inmates freed from prison,” said Muhammed Holil, 35, a social worker in the Jembatan Besi slums. “The police did almost nothing.”

Members of the Islamic Defender's Front during a protest in Jakarta in 2008. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

To the Front’s founder, a cleric named Habib Muhammed Rizieq, Suharto was the wicked Egyptian Pharaoh in the Quran. With Suharto gone, however, Rizieq, Siddiq and other fundamentalists were free to organize a resistance. The same sense of lawlessness that allowed so much vice also gave hardline Muslims the freedom to fight for the kind of Indonesia they thought was right.

Every booze stall, drug pusher and prostitute was warned first and offered spiritual counsel, Siddiq said.

“Not once, not twice. Three times. If that failed, we used the final resort,” he said.


“I stress that jihad does not have to be violent,” Siddiq said. “When all those discos were being destroyed, I was trying to negotiate with the owners. But if they hired thugs to initiate fights, we had to defend ourselves.”

Through vice raids, the Front won infamy and sympathizers. “If it weren’t for the Islamic Defenders Front,” Holil said, “this neighborhood would be far worse off.”

Their moral policing appealed to Muslims — particularly young men — who feel then and now that Indonesia’s immature democracy is incapable of repairing society.

“Sometimes [the Front] does wrong,” said Irwan Maulana, a 28-year-old University of Indonesia student. “But sometimes they bring justice. When the government’s doing such a bad job, who’s going to fix these problems?”

Expanding its influence

In recent years, the Front has expanded its crusade beyond nightlife haunts. The billiard bars and karaoke brothels they’ve wrecked are too numerous to count. Now, so are their cultural, religious and political targets.

Core founder Rizieq once vowed to “hunt down” American and British foreigners in retaliation for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In 2006, the Front stormed offices of Playboy Indonesia (which doesn’t publish nudity) and followed up with renewed threats this year to hunt down the publisher. (He is now serving a two-year sentence under indecency charges.)

They continue to burn down churches in Muslim-majority neighborhoods. Two different porn actresses, American Tera Patrick and Japan’s Maria Ozawa, were both threatened for filming horror flicks in Indonesia.

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