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Indonesia's Islamic, vigilante vice squad raids nightclubs, churches and more.
Guests to Siddiq’s spartan home are offered hot tea, dates and a guided tour of photos nailed to his lime green visiting-room wall. “That’s me and the old police chief,” he said, gesturing to a faded photo of a man wearing heavy regalia. Other photos reveal higher connections, to a former Jakarta governor here and an ex-vice president there.
These long-standing ties were established soon after Suharto’s fall by military generals who were eager to scrub away their reputation for oppressing Muslims.
Certain military leaders allied themselves with upstart clerics who founded the Front, according to Jahroni. Cash and free training followed, he said, and paramilitary exercises began in Bogor, a former Dutch colonial hub in West Java.
“They’re structured like a military organization,” he said. “These sweeps are very clean, very efficient, and wouldn’t be possible without a commander.”
Top police and army generals are fixtures at the Front’s anniversary celebrations. As recently as August, their 12th anniversary party attracted Jakarta’s governor. Even politicians who dislike the Front won’t publicly oppose them, Sundari said, for fear of dredging up the Suharto-era specter of Muslim discrimination. In the current climate, many politicians are loath to appear anti-Islam to an overwhelmingly Muslim electorate.
“If I’m organizing colleagues to oppose human rights problems in Myanmar [Burma], they say, ‘Oh, sure. I’ll join,’” Sundari said. “It’s shocking that they refuse when I try the same thing against a group that violates our own ideology.”
|Rizieq Shihab, the leader of Indonesia's Islamic Defender's Front, gestures as he delivers a speech inside a Jakarta court room on Oct. 30, 2008. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)|
The Front, she said, is hell-bent on replacing Indonesia’s pliable Islam with a more rigid approach. Via text message threats, Front members have threatened to strip her naked in public for opposing an anti-pornography bill, she said. Its passage, heavily pushed by the Front and its allies, cleared the way for the recent arrest of Playboy Indonesia’s editor.
Lawmakers that opportunistically befriend the group, she said, will greet them on parliament steps in Arabic, a language some Indonesian children learn in Islamic boarding schools.
“I’m like, hey, wait! I can’t understand you! Why all this Arabic dress, Arabic symbols everywhere?” Sundari said. “We’ve developed our own Islam. Now it’s contaminated by practices from Arabic culture. We embrace all religions, all differences, no problem.
“I, myself, am Muslim. My grandmother is a Hajj [one who has fulfilled a pilgrimage to Mecca]. My mother is a Hajj. But when I asked to marry my husband, who’s Catholic, they said if he’s a good man then the answer is yes,” Sundari said. “That’s open-minded. That’s Indonesia.”
Detractors liken the Front to a mafia in religious garb, a hired mob that will ignore targets for the right bribe. “They’re extortionists,” said Dede Oetomo, 57, Indonesia’s best-known gay rights activist. “Thugs.”
“I’ve actually received death threats for daring to organize LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] conferences,” Oetomo said. He now avoids announcing seminars too far in advance so the Front won’t have time to organize attacks.
“It’s annoying to have to worry about them all the time. Some of the younger activists say we should provoke them to attack us, just to expose them. I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Oetomo said.
“As much as Indonesia has always had a moderate reputation,” he said, “this extreme type of Islam has always been lurking on the sidelines.”
Spiraling out of control
The urban labyrinth around Siddiq’s home is brimming with humanity. Girls in lilac hijabs lean out of windows to gossip into their mobile phones. An elderly man pokes at a pile of lit garbage, dive-bombed by horseflies the size of marbles. A child steadies himself on the rim of an open sewage canal, scratches his head and urinates into the muck.
In these run-down quarters, where cement rooms rent for $25 a month, Siddiq seems to know everyone. The chain-smoking district chief, the jolly vendors, the newborns greeted with pecks on the cheek.
This is his masterpiece. Free of public evil or vice.
There are signs, however, that the morality brigade he helped found has ballooned out of control.
The group’s moral compass and core founder, Rizieq, is ill and said to be losing his influence. Several provincial chapters were told to go dormant for unknown reasons, but they brazenly continue raids without blessings from headquarters. A recent expose by The Jakarta Post suggests the Front has become nothing more than a “brand” adopted by opportunistic thugs.
Even Siddiq, whose walls abound with the Front’s paraphernalia, has recently distanced himself from the group. “It’s an internal matter,” he said. “I can’t discuss it.”
But no matter the Front’s future, Siddiq is adamant that Indonesia still desperately needs a ballast against moral decline. Not to wound or oppress the wicked, he said, but to lead them into the light.
“They say just one drink kills 5,000 brain cells. Just imagine drinking lots of it!” he said, looking visibly pained.
“If you do evil in your own home, that is your private matter with God. But if you do it in the open, before my eyes, that is a matter with me,” Siddiq said. “Because if we see it, we must eradicate it.”
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