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Vigilante jihad: Inside Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front

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


In September, they disrupted Asia’s largest gay film festival, Q!, which has been held in Jakarta nine years running. And perhaps their best-known attack went down in 2008 at Indonesia’s National Monument. The Front descended on a group that, while celebrating Indonesia’s religious plurality, condoned one of their most-hated targets: a Muslim sect called Ahmadiyah that believes Muhammed might not be the final prophet. Dozens were left badly wounded from an onslaught with wooden sticks, including some of the country’s most high-profile pluralist leaders.

That is only the abridged list of the Front’s prey. Outside of an 18-month jail sentence for Rizieq and another key leader, both stemming from the National Monument attack, the Front has received little punishment.

“This is why most people have become more critical of them,” Jahroni said. “They’re troublemakers.”

The criticism appears to have peaked after police failed to prevent a reverend’s near-fatal stabbing in September.

Just nine weeks before Obama’s November speech in Indonesia, a country he described as a success story because faiths flourish in harmony, the Front besieged a Batak Protestant Church in an industrial suburb of Jakarta.

Hooded members of Indonesia's Islamic Defender's Front point toy guns toward the U.S. Embassy during a demonstration in Jakarta on Aug. 1, 2006. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Their slight to Islam? Praying in a grassy meadow owned by parishioners. The 1,500-large congregation had failed after years of negotiating with authorities to secure a chapel-building permit. So they began worshipping in an empty field, making soggy pews from newspapers unfolded on the grass.

The first mob appeared in June. “All of them wore white robes and skull caps. Some had masks,” said Luspida Simanjuntak, 40, the church’s female reverend. “They handed us a notice saying the community refused to allow this.”

Each Sunday, the mob’s numbers grew. “Only about 250 of us were brave enough to come,” she said. “There were more of them than us, at least 500. We couldn’t sit down to worship. We had to stand at the ready in case they attacked.”

Despite heavy police presence, the Front surrounded parishioners, dispatched masked men to linger in the bushes and led chants of “Kill the pastor!”

On Sept. 12, one protester tried to do just that. With a crew on eight different motorbikes, he sped toward a group of parishioners and jammed a knife into the abdomen of co-pastor Hasian Lumbantoruan Sihombing.

Churchgoers scrambled to escape on their own motorbikes. They pressed a jacket to the reverend’s wounds, but it quickly soaked through with blood. As they fled to the hospital, attackers swung back to club Simanjuntak with a wooden plank.

“Once in the front of my head,” she said, “four times in the back.” Graphic images of the wounded pastors, bandaged and swollen in their hospital beds, were broadcast in Indonesia and beyond.

The assault was almost universally condemned, including by Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, as well as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyno himself. At least 10 suspects have been detained.

“But do the police really care?” Simanjuntak asked. “Why did they let this happen?”


With public opinion so squarely against the Front’s street violence, many Indonesians have marveled at authorities’ refusal to disband or at least prevent their attacks, often announced in advance and drummed up via Facebook.

“The guardians of our society have chosen their side,” said Eva Kusuma Sundari, a parliamentarian with Indonesia’s Democratic Party of Struggle. “It’s with the perpetrators. Not the victims.”

Sundari’s party has tried to expose the deep ties between the Front and Indonesia’s military and police. The connection, however, is hardly a secret.

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