The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group frequently accused of intimidation and violence, came under sharp criticism from Organisation of Islamic Co-operation Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu during his recent visit to Jakarta.
“From where did they get the license to do such things?” Ihsanoglu asked as he spoke to reporters February 20th at the Presidential Office. “When somebody says ‘I am doing this in the name of Islam’, we have to question who gave them the license to speak on behalf of Islam.”
Islam has a standard in the form of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), said the official, who was in Indonesia last month for the inaugural meeting of OIC’s newly-established Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission.
Members of the body held talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has been vocal in calling for moderation and religious tolerance.
Interpretation should be made by the proper religious authorities and “it should be in context”, The Jakarta Post quoted Ihsanoglu as saying. The FPI garnered headlines by deputising itself as a moral police squad, with mobs of hooded men shouting in Arabic as they attack and vandalise bars, nightclubs, stores selling alcohol, and food vendors that stay open during Ramadan.
Such incidents have angered many in Indonesia who see the group as threatening the country’s distinctive blend of Islam and democracy. In mid-February, hundreds of protesters rallied in Jakarta and other cities to denounce the FPI’s actions.
Prominent Islamic authorities in Indonesia have also criticised the FPI, saying Islam does not condone vigilante behaviour. Imdadun Rahmat, Deputy Secretary General of Nahdlatul Ulama, says the group has been misusing Islam by conducting acts of violence in order to force its point of view and achieve its objectives.
“Everybody has the right to use Islam in their organisation’s name as long as their actions accord with Islamic values and vision, without forcing their point of view on other people,” he said.
Amid mounting public pressure, the FPI says it is changing its ways.
Awid Masuri, the group’s deputy secretary general, acknowledges that the FPI for many years has utilised violent means in order to realise its goals, but he says this approach is being scrapped.
“We have been trying to change our approach to society to enforce the law by having a better communication with people,” he said. “Although we have changed our paradigm to a more peaceful approach, the mass media is still creating a negative image about us.”
That argument didn’t convince Imdadun, who said the group is just using the media as a scapegoat in order to deflect attention from its behaviour. “It is a fact that they have been using violence to achieve their objective. Everybody knows and sees it! Why would they pin the blame on the media exposure?” he said.
“Islam is a peaceful religion,” Imdadun added.
Muhammad Guntur Romli, a pluralist activist, told Khabar Southeast East Asia that laws are in place, which could be used to restrain FPI vigilantes.
“Indonesia actually has several legal instruments for curbing anarchist organisations such as the FPI — either Indonesian Criminal Code or Law Number 8 of 1985 on Mass Organisation,” he said.
But Mohammed Mahfud MD, the chief of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, said more specific regulations need to be in place.
“Although Indonesia has legal instruments regarding mass organisation, it does not regulate them properly. Therefore the government cannot disband any mass organisation, because it will be against democratic values,” he said. “It needs to be understood that the state cannot disband any mass organisation without a proper regulation.”
Interreligious Council (IRC) Chairman Din Syamsuddin says mass organisations have the right to exist in the country as long as they do not resort to violence.
“I’m not talking about certain groups, but in general they all have the right to exist, the right to speak up. However, they can only do that under one condition: none of them should resort to violence,” Din, who is also the chairman of the Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Islamic organisation, said in comments quoted by aThe Jakarta Post.