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Widodo's battle with radical Islam hangs in balance

Indonesian president pursues two-pronged approach amid political shifts

Indonesian President Joko Widodo meets citizens at the Indonesian embassy in Singapore on Sept. 6.   © Reuters

Radical Muslim organizations alleging blasphemy against Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Purnama caught Indonesian President Joko Widodo off guard last year, and seemed for a while to threaten his presidency. Mass rallies over several months helped to inflict electoral defeat on Purnama, who was convicted in court and is now serving two years in prison.

Distancing himself from Purnama, a former political ally, Widodo has now begun to tackle the perceived threat from radical Islam. His approach looks like a two-pronged strategy. The first element is to curtail radical Muslim organizations' freedom of action. The second is to reinforce the status and prestige of Pancasila, the tolerant and inclusive Indonesian state ideology.

In May, Widodo's security minister, Wiranto, announced that the government would try to have Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, one of the radical Islamist organizations, banned by the courts. Then, fearing a possibly adverse reaction from Indonesia's unpredictable justice system, the government changed tack and issued an emergency law (formally 'a regulation in lieu of a law') in July. This made a court verdict unnecessary. HTI in consequence lost its legal status, and was banned. The case against HTI was that it was opposed to Pancasila, and posed a threat to national unity. Ministers have warned that other organizations may suffer the same fate.

Some observers have expressed surprise that Widodo picked on HTI first, since it was not the most prominent of the groups that had campaigned against Purnama. But the choice of HTI is understandable. This organization has two characteristics that have usually been anathema to Indonesia's security authorities. It is linked in a nontransparent way to an international movement, and it operates in some respects as a secret or clandestine organization. For example, it publishes neither membership statistics nor the names of its leading office-holders. A single spokesperson is its interface with the Indonesian public. Gaining access to HTI's inner circles is very difficult.

Like other branches in the international Hizbut Tahrir network, HTI has as its long-term goal the fusing of the national state into a global Muslim caliphate. How this is to be achieved is enveloped in obscurity. Pancasila would presumably have no function. But whether this utopian project will appear sufficient cause for a ban in the eyes of Indonesia's Constitutional Court, which is reviewing the edict, is hard to predict. The ban might instead be declared unconstitutional.

An Islamic group member covers his face with Hizbut Tahrir flag during a July 28 protest in Jakarta against the decree against groups deemed counter to the secular state.   © Reuters

The campaign against Purnama was headed by the Islamic Defenders' Front, known by its Indonesian initials as FPI. An early attempt to ban FPI would have taken few commentators by surprise. But successive Indonesian governments have had ambiguous connections with the group. It has sometimes, for example, conducted raids on private sex parties, either in connivance with the police or independently, but in both cases enjoying immunity from prosecution. Unlike HTI's shadowy leaders, FPI figures seem to have been open to bribery or to manipulation in other ways. This may have saved the organization from being banned, at least for the time being, despite its frequently criminal and socially disruptive behavior.

Habib Rizieq, the longstanding FPI chair, is in temporary refuge in Saudi Arabia; he has been accused of holding a private sex party of his own in violation of the law against pornography. This involved inciting a female nongovernmental organization official to strip in front of a camera which, the police claim, transmitted the images to Rizieq's smartphone. The FPI leader is said to have been parked outside the woman's residence at the time of the alleged incident.

Reinforcing Pancasila

A stalemate has arisen between Rizieq and police officers, who want to have him put on trial. The government seems unable to dislodge him from his Saudi refuge by diplomatic or other means. Rizieq clearly fears being arrested should he return to Indonesia. He has chaired FPI for so long that his personal fate will have considerable impact on the group's future. The government may decide that it is simply not worth trying to ban FPI, either because of the opposition that such a step would provoke or because it might be less potent without Rizieq in command. Police officers visited Rizieq in his Saudi sanctuary, extending a courtesy to him that Indonesian criminals rarely receive.

Reinforcing Pancasila as the state ideology is an equally important element of Widodo's strategy. Pancasila includes monotheism as one of five principles, but does not grant special status to any religion. It runs counter, therefore, to the ideal of an Islamic state and to the imposition of Islamic law. It is a code-word for tolerance, not for faith.

President Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 31 years to 1998, made extensive but ultimately counter-productive efforts to force all political and social organizations to adopt Pancasila as their governing ideology. He also mandated courses in Pancasila for vast numbers of Indonesians. The courses quickly gained the reputation of being tedious and uninspiring.

But Widodo seems to have learned nothing from this unhappy precedent. He has set up a "Presidential Working Unit to Consolidate the Ideology of Pancasila," which was foreshadowed in 2016 before the uproar over Purnama. This unit is expected to arrange courses on Pancasila, particularly in schools and universities. Its advisory body consists of nine venerable politicians and religious figures, including an octogenarian former vice president. What new vigor or insight these advisors can bring to the stale discussion of Pancasila remains to be seen.

Whereas Pancasila thrives in seminars, workshops and in the uplifting speeches of military officers or civil servants, Islam flourishes in mosques, prayer groups and in the streets. Unlike Islam, Pancasila does not inspire passion or self-sacrifice, let alone martyrdom. It lacks the international dimension that often boosts radical Islam's fighting spirit. The plight of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar has prompted FPI to call for a jihad to go to their rescue. Pancasila, by contrast, is silent on such issues. It also fails to touch people in their daily lives. When an alleged thief or other petty criminal is lynched by a mob, a rather frequent occurrence in Indonesia, the killers may be condemned for breaking the law, but not for violating Pancasila.

By banning HTI, and perhaps other organizations, Widodo will force at least some of their members underground, possibly -- but by no means necessarily -- provoking them to turn to more extreme measures such as terrorism. In the absence of a controversial figure like the ethnic-Chinese Purnama, who was an all too easy target for radical Muslims, Jakarta is unlikely to witness large-scale demonstrations capable of rattling Widodo in the 20 months before the next election. But the president has yet to hit upon a means of permanently neutralizing the appeal of radical Islam.

Ken Ward is a former diplomat and intelligence analyst, and is the author of "Condemned to Crisis?," an assessment of Australia-Indonesia relations.

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