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Islam Defenders mutating into splinter cells for hire
Indications are rife that the vigilante group the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) is degenerating into an unchained organization, allowing various vested interests to use the group’s revolting elites to instill the threat of violence in regions where they see fit. The Jakarta Post’s Rendi Akhmad Witular and Hans David Tampubolon explored how the FPI is mutating into a new kind of threat.
Upon entering Jl. Petamburan 3, the main road heading to the FPI headquarters-cum residence of FPI chairman Habib Rizieq, in Central Jakarta, a string of cautious eyes greet unknown visitors.
A couple of men guarding and working on the renovation of Rizieq’s modest residence question the purpose of any visit to the site.
“Habib is currently sick and cannot meet anyone for the time being. He is very tired,” said Amat, one of the guards.
After being released from prison in July last year, Rizieq’s health has been deteriorating.
Rizieq was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for instigating the FPI’s bloody attack on members of the Alliance for the Freedom of Religion and Faith in the National Monument park, Central Jakarta, on June 1, 2008.
The firebrand cleric, who earned his degree in Saudi Arabia, now spends most of his time resting in bed or preaching at the FPI’s mosque every Thursday night.
While Rizieq stays low, other FPI elites, mostly from regional chapters, have been busy becoming political mercenaries without consent from FPI’s headquarters.
The elites have used the FPI franchise to form splinter groups to support political parties and regional leaders.
In his statement on Monday, Rizieq said the recent raid of a meeting attended by legislators from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in Banyuwangi, East Java, in late June was not authorized by headquarters.
“The FPI Banyuwangi chapter has been frozen since late April due to an internal dispute. Thus, any activities representing the FPI are forbidden. But somehow they happen,” he said.
FPI leaders in Banyuwangi have been marred by conflagrations for supporting certain political parties.
Aside from the Banyuwangi raids, Rizieq also highlighted several illegitimate raids in Bekasi and Depok in West Java, and Singkawang in West Kalimantan.
He claimed the Bekasi raid, in which the Tiga Mojang (Three Ladies) statue was torn down because it was deemed to represent the Christian Trinity, was actually conducted by proxies of the Bekasi mayor.
Several FPI members, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, said that while Rizieq remained the group’s patron, he no longer had a firm grip on consolidating the personal interests of the FPI elites, who were now competing with each other to replace him at the 2013 congress.
Retired intelligence officer Soeripto said he believed Rizieq had gradually lost control of the organization, which was very prone to being used by intelligence community and law enforcers to serve the interests of the ruling elite.
“It seems now the FPI has a different patron and backing,” said Soeripto, who is among the patrons of the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
“The Banyuwangi incident has shown how Rizieq can no longer maintain a grip on his followers and how the FPI is prone to being infiltrated by the intelligence community either for national or foreign interests.”
However, FPI secretary-general Ahmad Sobri Lubis denied the suggestion that Rizieq was unfit to lead the organization.
“Habib is still in control of the situation. But the regional chapters have full autonomy to act.”
Over the past three years, raids and street rallies carried out by the FPI have mostly been organized by its regional chapters, notably those in Banten, West Java and East Java.
Analysts believe the FPI will eventually break apart into several autonomous splinter cells similar to those of the Pancasila Youth organization, which no longer holds allegiance to their original patron Japto Soerjosoemarno.
The organization is now breaking up into smaller groups widely associated with thugs, operating independently from each other.
“If the FPI is mutating into smaller independent factions, it will be more difficult for the authorities to shut them down as there will be numerous leaders claiming to be operating under the FPI brand,” said Soeripto.
Chairman of the Indonesian Muslim Movement (GUII), Abdurrahman Assegaf, said the FPI would not mutate into smaller factions as long as Habib Rizieq remained in power.
“Habib is still functioning as a kind of moral figure that at some level still unites the FPI elites. He is so instrumental in keeping the group intact,” said Abdurrahman, who has joined forces with the FPI in clamping down on Ahmadiyah - a religious sect considered blasphemous to Islam because it does not recognize Muhammad as the last prophet.
Abdurrahman said the FPI was unlikely to be dissolved as long as law enforcers were not cooperative in complying with demands from the Muslim community to eradicate activities deemed to threaten Islamic teachings.
“There’s always demand for a vigilante group like the FPI because of the law enforcement vacuum, coupled with abundant uneducated Muslims who are prone to be lured into committing violence.”
The FPI is a splinter group of the Pamswakarsa civil guard formed by the military to support the Habibie regime.
The group has been marred by acts of violence allegedly ordered by political parties or businessmen.
Unlike any other hard-line group, the FPI’s struggle is aimed at crushing activities deemed unfit according to Islam, such as prostitution, gambling, drinking and atheism.
The group’s use of ultra violence, which has triumphed over the rule of law in secular Indonesia, is still less potent than that of Jamaah Al Islamiyah, the terrorist group involved in a string of bombings, or Laskar Jihad (Jihad Troops), which incited a sectarian conflict in Maluku.
Sobri Lubis said it was not unusual for the FPI to receive orders from the police to raid establishment deemed to violate Islamic teachings.
Police have repeatedly denied such allegations. National Police chief Gen. Bambang Hendarso Danuri told activists Wednesday that all violence “had to be eradicated” in the country.
According to FPI Consultative Assembly secretary Misbahul Anam, then TNI territorial chief Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono *now the President* asked for the group’s assistance in dealing with insurgencies in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam.
In July 1999, FPI leaders met high-ranking military generals, including Yudhoyono, at the TNI headquarters in Cilangkap, East Jakarta, to discuss solutions for the insurgencies in Aceh, according to media reports at the time.
The administration of President Yudhoyono has thus far proven unable to crack down on the organization, which has regularly committed violence freely under the noses of law enforcers.
Presidential spokesman Julian Aldrin Pasha said he was not aware of the cooperation between Yudhoyono and FPI leaders.
He said the President had shown strong commitment to bring to justice any criminal groups without prejudice.
He said the FPI may now become a tool in a turf war between governing elites with authority for policy-making.
The turf war includes clandestine battles between the military and the police, between Islamic organizations and liberal wings, between pro-democracy and antidemocracy, and between political elites over the Bank Century bailout scandal.
“The FPI has been nurtured for almost 12 years as a tool for state terrorism. It can be used to discredit Islam, or to sideline the police or certain political parties, or even to divert public attention from certain high-profile scandals involving policy makers,” he said.
Since its birth in 1998, the FPI has been involved in at least 50 incidents.