The historically hardline defenders of Islam plan to enter the political mainstream by softening their rhetoric and abandoning hate speech
Sorbi Lubis, one of the leaders of the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, FPI), is known for encouraging violence against minority Muslim groups including Ahmadiyah, Shia and so-called liberal Muslims, even to the point of genocide. He has also targeted the LGBT community, and Christians planning to build churches in areas where Muslims form the majority. His verbal addresses have often included virulent hate speech, promoting fear that his opponents are existential threats. He has gone so far as to call it his duty to bring about the deaths of those he targets, claiming that to let them to live would lead to the destruction of Islam and the Indonesian Muslim community.
Since the group was founded in 1998, the FPI has conducted hundreds of attacks on groups it deems religiously ‘deviant’ or ‘sinful.’ The frequency and intensity of FPI attacks has declined since 2014, when President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) implemented tougher policies on extremists than those of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In 2016, the FPI moved towards the political mainstream, playing a lead role in the Aksi Bela Islam (Action Supporting Islam) demonstrations of 11 October, 4 November and 2 December. These events helped to eliminate Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), from the 2017 gubernatorial election.
FPI has softened its rhetoric in order to broaden its base. This trend was apparent at an event called ‘Kesiapsiagan umat Islam Yogyakarta menyambut Kota Yogya sebagai serambi Madinah’ (the Yogyakarta Muslim community declares Yogya the verandah of Madinah), held at the Danunegara mosque in Yogyakarta on 11 February 2018. At this event, I heard speeches from Lubis and leaders of the Yogyakarta Muhammadiyah youth group (Pemuda Muhammadiyah, PM), the Justice and Prosperity Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, PKS) and the conservative Indonesian Muslim Preachers Association (Ikatan Dai Indonesia, IKADI).
The verandah of Madinah
The content and tone of the speeches were restrained by FPI standards. There were no calls for the killing of minorities, or the banning of their organisations. Instead Lubis focused on less extreme themes: the Qur’anic injunction to ‘command good and forbid evil’ (amar bi al-ma'ruf wa nahi 'an al-munkar) and the FPI’s place in Indonesian Muslim society. His tone of voice, often shrill and harsh, was calm and measured. He projected the persona of an established leader, rather than a firebrand agitator.
There is nothing novel about the appellation ‘Verandah of Madinah’, as it has been used to describe Yogyakarta and other Indonesian provinces since at least 2012. Madinah is regarded by Muslims as the second holiest Muslim city because the Prophet Mohammad took refuge there to avoid persecution in Mecca in 622 CE. By referring to Yogyakarta as the verandah of Madinah, the FPI seeks to claim that the city possesses a uniquely Islamic character.
Madinah has a number of important symbolic meanings in terms of Islamic politics. The city is referred to as the first Islamic state by many, though some Muslims place more importance on its constitution, the Madinah Charter, which established the city as a Muslim polity and in which religious freedom was guaranteed. Conservatives and Islamists, such as the FPI, generally emphasise the first of those identities. Progressive Muslims and Javanese traditionalists consider the constitution the city’s main legacy.
At the Danunegara mosque, Lubis described Yogya as a city:
‘beset by sin: alcohol, narcotics, free sex, prostitution, pornography and LGBT. These are weapons the West uses to destroy Islam. Many people don’t understand the danger of sin; they seek blessings but tolerate sin. They are walking corpses. Drunken gangsters gather near mosques and communities fear to confront them. The police, the government and even the army are afraid. Children die from overdoses and they are afraid. Police could seize a ton of narcotics every day, but they find only a gram. Indonesia is a corrupt mafia republic.’
Lubis asserted that a national movement opposing sin was lacking. The only opposition, according to him, was coming from a few scattered preachers and scholars. The action plan of the FPI is needed, he continued, to fight sin and make Indonesia a law-abiding nation. Lubis went on to outline his plan, proposing:
‘systematic investigation into allegations of illegal sin. Step one is filing police reports. If the police do not take action, the FPI will investigate by asking two questions: Are the allegations true? Does society tolerate the sinful act? If society tolerates the act, the FPI will command the good by sending preachers. If not, the FPI will prohibit the evil, starting with further investigations and fact-based police reports.
If the police fail to act, the FPI will engage in dialogue with the purveyors of sin and establish deadlines for eliminating it. If after a week or even a month, sin has not stopped, the FPI will take action. At first this will be completely peaceful demonstrations. Then, if the sinning continues, we will destroy it!’
Lubis repeated this last phrase three times, gradually rising in volume, in an increasingly shrill tone. Lubis described the FPI as an integral part of the larger Indonesian Muslim community. He stated:
‘Nahdlatul Ulama has many fine scholars and many schools. Muhammadiyah has thousands of schools, from kindergartens to universities, Wahdah Islamiyah (a Sulawesi-based Salafi movement) also has schools and pesantren, so does Hidayatullah (a Kalimantan-based Salafi organisation). The Indonesian Dakwah Council (DDII) sends preachers into the jungle to bring Islam to people there. All of this is good. It is commanding the good (amar bi al-ma'ruf). Only the FPI can forbid evil (nahi 'an al-munkar). We are all part of the same body. The FPI is the missing part. We are the only ones that can take action against sin.’
Lubis concluded by calling on the audience to join in the struggle against sin. He warned listeners that this could be difficult and that they might go to prison for their efforts. Indonesian prisons, however, are not all that bad, he continued, because they provide many opportunities for prayer and study.
A sceptical audience
Lubis’s speech was part of an attempt to make the FPI more mainstream. While it featured implicit threats and violent undertones, it was clearly a step back from the extremist rhetoric he and other FPI leaders have used in the past. Lubis did not, however, recant his previous threats to minorities, or rule out a return to violent confrontations against the perceived enemies of Islam. However, he did bring up an old FPI theme, dialogue. The group uses this term in a distinct way. Dialogues are not polite discussions of difference aimed at reconciliation and consensus building. The FPI’s approach to dialogue is confrontational, consisting of an ultimatum with an implicit threat of violence in the case of noncompliance. If the party receiving the ultimatum raises questions in response, the threats from the FPI escalate. When talking about dialogue, Lubis slipped into his usual rhetoric, threatening to ‘destroy sin’ if dialogue and demonstrations fail to produce the desired results.
Lubis was received politely, albeit coolly. The mosque was far from full and many people were less than attentive. Many did not find Lubis’s depiction of Yogyakarta as a city of sin credible. Masjid Danunegara is a Muhammadiyah mosque. The mosque’s elders and youth leaders provided assurance that Lubis spoke for himself and the FPI, but not for Muhammadiyah. Many within the audience did not believe that Lubis or the FPI had changed. As one spectator observed: ‘They have always been gangsters in robes and they still are.’ This sums up the hypocrisy widely identified within the FPI – the group’s members dress in Arab style robes, suggesting piety and purity, but are in fact perceived as violent gangsters.
Hate speech has been the FPI’s preferred tactic since its establishment two decades ago. It has repeatedly demonised minorities, and used violent but non-lethal attacks as tools of political mobilisation. The FPI uses hate speech to target individuals or groups, defining them as existential threats to Islam, thereby promoting and justifying violence. With its change to focussing on the abstract concept of sin, rather than specific groups, the group’s hate speech loses much of its power. It is perhaps true that by focussing on sin, the FPI may have lost some of its capacity to inspire fear and promote violence. Should this be the case, the group might fail in its efforts to become a major political force, for it has nothing but fear to offer.
Despite Lubis’s more moderate tone, the FPI has not abandoned its confrontational style of dialogue. On 16 March 2018, an FPI delegation visited the offices of Tempo, one of Indonesia’s most influential weekly news outlets, to protest an editorial cartoon they believed insulted FPI leader Habib Rizieq. They were by far less polite than Sorbi Lubis had been in Yogyakarta. Members of the FPI delegation banged on tables and threw water bottles. When Tempo editor in chief Arif Zulkifli tried to address a crowd of FPI supporters waiting outside his office, they threw bottles at him. Someone seized his glasses and threw them into the crowd, reminding Indonesians of the hardline FPI of old.
Mark Woodward (email@example.com) is an associate professor of Religious Studies and affiliated with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.