Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Convenient thugs

Convenient thugs
Published: Aug 11, 2012

FPI thrives when mainstream Muslim groups remain silent


Henky Widjaja

FPI national head Habib Rizieq. Banner reads 'We are Indonesia! Neither civil nor adat (customary) law will ever rival Allah's law'
Henky Widjaja

For the first time last year in Makassar, the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI) conducted raids on food outlets trading during daylight hours in the Islamic fasting month. Raids during Ramadhan are not in themselves new. Another organisation, Laskar Jundullah, launched a series of raids on hotels and entertainment venues in the early 2000s. But these attacks on food outlets marked FPI's emergence as South Sulawesi's leading Islamic paramilitary organisation, and one that was more confident than its predecessors to intervene in new areas of daily life.

Across Indonesia, many groups have long disapproved of FPI and their vigilante attacks. When the group raided an interfaith gathering at the national monument in Jakarta in 2008, former president Abdurrahman Wahid called for the group to be disbanded. Most recently, adat (traditional culture) groups rejected FPI's attempt to form a branch in the Central Kalimantan's capital city Palangkaraya, a crowd gathering at the airport to ensure FPI leaders did not disembark from their commercial flight. In Makassar, too, human rights groups and secular NGOs organised large protests against FPI's vigilante attacks.

Yet the group continues to operate, and typically receives only a slap on the wrist for its violent actions. FPI's national head, Habib Rizieq, received just an 18 month sentence for inciting FPI members to carry out the national monument attack. In Makassar, after their food stall attacks went unchallenged, FPI attacked the provincial secretariat of Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect that has suffered violence and harassment across Indonesia. Only then did police arrest FPI's provincial chief and two of his followers. The trio were sentenced only to the five months they had already served in prison by the time of their trial, a token punishment that saw the men immediately released.

To understand why FPI can operate as it does in Makassar, we need to examine the attitudes of mainstream Islamic groups to the organisation. Amidst the chorus of criticism of FPI in Makassar, these groups have remained noticeably silent. Their silence reflects an unease regarding social ills that they share with FPI, stemming from increased conservatism in society. When mainstream groups feel the government is not acting on their concerns, FPI serves as a convenient pressure group.

Following in Laskar Jundullah's footsteps

Since FPI established a branch in South Sulawesi in 2008, it has followed in the footsteps of fellow Islamic militia Laskar Jundullah, doing best in districts known to be Laskar Jundullah strongholds. Often, the two groups share followers and supporters. In Bulukumba, for example, FPI established a branch in February 2011. Soon after, the two groups came together in protest over a decision by the district government to allow Catholics to conduct mass in the disused former office of the district head. Minority religions are a common target for FPI, who act as a leading pressure group to seek to prevent them establishing places of worship, whether temporary or permanent.

Laskar Jundullah itself was established in 2000 as the paramilitary wing of the South Sulawesi-based Preparatory Committee for the Implementation of Islamic Law (KPPSI). KPPSI was a political front led by Aziz Kahar Muzakkar, one of the sons of Kahar Muzakkar, a leader of a Darul-Islam rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s. KPPSI achieved some initial successes, inspiring many districts and municipalities issued local regulations based on Shari’a. During the same period, Laskar Jundullah reached the height of its influence. Headquartered in Makassar, the militia also established branches in other municipalities and districts. It was well-known for its violent acts, with political scientist Michael Buehler observing that the militia serves as a kind of informal Shari’a police force in many districts and also helps candidates in many district head elections to intimidate their rivals.

But two rounds of arrests in 2002 marked Laskar Jundullah's downfall. First, Laskar Jundullah's head Agus Dwikarna was arrested in the Philippines in 2002 in possession of explosives. Then eight Laskar Jundullah members were convicted for the December 2002 Makassar bombings, which targeted a McDonalds restaurant in the Jusuf Kalla-owned Ratu Indah Mall as well as a car dealership owned by Kalla. One rumour suggested that Kalla, a KPPSI advisor, was attacked for not delivering on a promise to help free Dwikarna. Another interpretation maintained that Kalla was targeted because Laskar Jundullah disapproved of his role in brokering the Malino peace accord in the Poso conflict, where the group had sent fighters.

The bombings were a serious miscalculation on Laskar Jundullah's part. Elite supporters abandoned the group, which was forced to scale back its operations and relocate its headquarters to the small coastal town of Pare-Pare. Nevertheless, Laskar Jundullah has maintained political support at district-level in some parts of South Sulawesi such as Bulukumba, and continues to operate in these districts.

Explaining immunity

FPI is also active outside Laskar Jundullah strongholds. In December 2010, FPI members disbursed a transgender beauty pageant in Makassar, proclaiming the event in violation of Shari’a. The group has also repeatedly raided parks to search for prostitutes, and has targeted street vendors and kiosks selling alcohol. As in many other provinces in Indonesia, FPI has also repeatedly attacked the local Ahmadiyah congregation, and demanded that the provincial government ban the group.

The attacks on Ahmadiyah spurred calls to ban FPI in South Sulawesi by local human rights groups and secular NGOs, along with research institutes and youth organisations affiliated with the mainstream Islamic groups. The provincial government has resisted these calls, claiming that they do not have the legal grounds to disband the group. In part, government inaction reflects FPI's elite backing. But this inaction also shows that conservative Muslims have become a significant political constituency in South Sulawesi, which political leaders are reluctant to alienate by taking firm action against FPI.

One sign of rising religious conservatism in South Sulawesi over the past decade is increasingly open displays of Islamic piety. It is no longer considered old-fashioned to wear Islamic dress, join a prayer group or send one's children to an Islamic school. Public piety is now in fact a sign of social status, amid efforts to make religion fun and trendy. These social changes are supported by Shari'a-inspired regional regulations, which promote an explicitly religious lifestyle. The relationship between the two is mutually reinforcing: the more popular such lifestyles become, the more incentive there is for politicians to enact Shari'a-inspired regulations to win votes and raise funds.

As conservatism has grown, Islamic politicians have also achieved new electoral success. One clear example is the electoral fortunes of Kahar Muzakkar's three sons. Aziz Kahar Muzakkar has twice won office as one of South Sulawesi's four representatives on the national Regional Representative Council (DPD), although he also unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2007. His brother Buhari Kahar Muzakkar is a provincial parliamentarian for Islamic party PAN, while Andi Muzakkar is the district head in Luwu. At the same time, other political figures have started to return to KPPSI, seeking to gain popularity by pledging their support for the implementation of Shari’a laws or calling for the release of Laskar Jundullah head Agus Dwikarna.

As well as contributing to the impunity enjoyed by FPI, rising conservatism also helps the organisation to gain young, well-educated members. People often assume FPI's ranks are populated with thugs and criminals, but many members have good jobs at top companies and government departments. Joining groups like FPI can also be a way into politics for educated youths, when these organisations have elite backing or unofficial associations with political parties. FPI and its ilk are also attractive because they are visible advocates of issues that concern Muslims, and sometimes take direct action. These issues include support for Palestine, as well as domestic problems such as religious conflicts and moral degradation.

More broadly, university campuses have long been home to radical groups. Members of these student groups then joined mainstream radical organisations such as Laskar Jihad, which sent volunteers to Ambon and Poso during the violent conflicts there. Some students conducted sweepings to look for non-Muslim students at the height of these conflicts, or have carried out other violent acts, such as burning a Catholic church on Hasanuddin University campus in 1999.

Support from mainstream groups

FPI's symbiotic relations with elites and the state's failure to curb religious violence have each contributed to the organisation's rise. But the ambiguous attitudes of mainstream Islamic groups have been another key factor. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah both objected when calls to ban FPI peaked earlier this year. One interpretation of this stance might be that these groups want to maintain their progressive credentials by supporting secular and tolerant movements, while also pleasing conservative and radical constituents. For Nahdlatul Ulama in particular, this represented a significant shift. NU had itself urged a ban after FPI wounded some of its members in their 2008 Monas attack. In NU strongholds in Java such as Jember and Banyumas, pressure from NU also forced FPI to dissolve its local chapters.

FPI has emerged as South Sulawesi's leading Islamic paramilitary group
Henky Widjaja

NU's change of heart suggests a new resonance of FPI's name as the ‘Islamic Defenders' Front’ for other Islamic organisations. When NU and Muhammadiyah objected to calls for a ban, each emphasised the role of FPI in 'embracing virtue and rejecting vice' (amar ma’ruf nahi mungkar), contrasting it to the slow response of state authorities to issues of concern to Muslims. A senior member of NU's youth wing, Choirul Anam, urged the groups members not to lend their voice to calls for a ban, saying people must look at the root cause of FPI's actions – the lack of law enforcement in cases where social norms are flouted – rather than to simply blame the group. Along similar lines, senior Muhammadiyah figure Agus Trisundani observed that despite its shortcomings, FPI was needed to maintain the spirit of amar ma’ruf nahi mungkar among Indonesian Muslims.

Calls to ban FPI also spurred demands that the government ban secular and liberal groups, including the prominent Liberal Islamic Network (JIL). Even Hasyim Muzadi, a progressive figure and former NU chairperson, made comments of this sort. While criticising FPI's violent acts, Muzadi deemed that efforts to ban FPI would be ineffective, and said that if FPI were banned, the government should also outlaw organisations that exploited issues such as humanity and democracy to promote foreign interests in Indonesia.


Attack dog?

Last September, the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks published the leaked US diplomatic cables reporting that FPI had been sponsored by the Indonesian security forces to play the role of 'attack dog', making it possible for the military to intimidate various targets without incurring the criticism that direct action would have generated.

FPI might play the same role for other Islamic organisations. In South Sulawesi, it is part of the Forum Umat Islam (FUI), which also counts among its members Hizbut Tahrir, Nahdlatul Ulama, Wahda Islamiyah, PITI (The Association of Chinese Indonesian Muslims), and KPPSI. It operates in tandem with other groups in this forum in activities such as the protests against Ahmadiyah. Mainstream groups, such as Muhammadiyah and NU, take no active part when FPI acts violently in South Sulawesi though. But nor do they raise their voices in condemnation. Their silence may well be a sign of approval, and reflect a symbiotic relationship whereby vigilante groups like FPI exert pressure on issues of mutual concern.

Viewed in this light, FPI and other similar groups in Indonesia are likely to continue to operate for as long as there is demand for their services. It is hard to imagine them disappearing any time soon given the growing conservatism in society, the ongoing failure of the state to address the problem religious violence and the ambiguous attitude of mainstream Islamic groups.

Henky Widjaja (h.widjaja@law.leidenuniv.nl) is a PhD researcher in Anthropology at Leiden University and currently stationed at the Van Vollenhoven Institute, Leiden Law School, The Netherlands.

Inside Indonesia 109: Jul-Sep 2012

{jcomments on}

Latest Articles

Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

The Jokowi-Luhut alliance


A business alliance forged in 2008 between Joko Widodo and Luhut Pandjaitan formed the basis for a major axis in his presidency

An EV-fix for mining


Nickel’s ‘green development’ boost to resource nationalism

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.