Many migrant workers find solace in extremist groups, as they give them a sense of belonging. (Antara Photo/Irwansyah Putra)

Johannes Nugroho: Plot Twist, Role Reversal in Indonesia's Fight Against Radicalism


OCTOBER 28, 2017

Amid accusations of stifling civil liberties and damaging democracy, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's government has scored a significant triumph over its political enemies, as a 2007 government regulation in lieu of law (Perppu No 2/2017) was recently approved by the House of Representatives. The regulation is a revision of the 2013 Law on Mass Organizations, with emphasis on granting the government new powers to ban and prosecute mass organization and members deemed to be or have acted in contravention to the country's state ideology Pancasila.

The regulation was first enacted last July, palpably in the aftermath of a series of anti-government protests and social unrest brought about by the trial of former Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahja Purnama ─ an erstwhile political ally of the president ─ who was charged and subsequently convicted of blasphemy against Islam. Its first victim was Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a transnational movement with an ultimate aim of establishing theocratic governments across the Muslim world.

The Perppu, though welcomed by supporters of the government, was not without its detractors. Predictably, hardline Islamic organizations and opposition parties that felt targeted by the government voiced their protests. The country’s second largest Muslim mass organization Muhammadiyah and the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) also lodged a judicial review of the regulation with the Constitutional Court, a process now technically derailed by the legislature's approval of the regulation to become law.

While it is difficult to tell whether the new law will be effective in turning back radical ideologies, it has definitely created a situation of great irony. That hardline Islamist groups are opposing it with the argument that it hurts freedom of expression is ironic since they have always been in the habit of calling democracy un-Islamic, even an enemy of Islam.

What is more ironic is the silent acquiescence by Indonesia's democracy activists and civil society, with perhaps the exception of the NGO Kontras which warned that the regulation smacked authoritarianism and had the potential of seeing future abuse. Apart from Kontras' sober warning, there was a sigh of relief, even a celebration, within the populace that the government finally "had the guts" to act against hardline groups.

The sentiment is understandable as the public has watched in horror as incidents of intolerance involving Islamist vigilante groups have been on the rise for the last ten years: mass picketing against new church buildings by groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), raids against restaurants and eateries during the fasting month, forcible disbanding of events by minority religious groups and so on.

Understandable as it is, it is also misguided. The mirage of the government’s gumption to pass a law against radical groups remains a perception. While the new law may restrict the movement of radical groups on the political level and their access to power, there is no guarantee that it will be effective in dealing with incidents of intolerance that affect ordinary Indonesians.

Earlier this month, for instance, the Roman Catholic Foundation of Santa Laurensia had to contend with mass protests against the construction of a new school in Tangerang, Banten, because rumors had spread that it was not a school that was being built but the biggest church in Southeast Asia. Despite the fact that the foundation had been issued with the necessary permits for the project, it was subsequently told to halt construction by the Tangerang district head A. Zaki Iskandar pending mediation with Islamic groups. The case demonstrates that it is the lack of legal certainty that lies behind the growth of intolerance and radicalism.

Hence, while the new law may better ensure the political survival of the government ─ which now has the power to ban a mass organization without the due process of a court hearing ─ it will have very little effect on the ongoing intolerant acts by radical groups against minorities in Indonesia.

Today's banality of such acts could have been prevented years ago if law enforcement agencies, notably the police, had been prepared to use existing laws on hate speech, vandalism and public disorder to rein in extremist groups with unflinching consistency. Instead, in most cases, the rule of law was largely disregarded, especially if it was felt that the extremist group in question represented the majority of people in the area. Cherry-picking the law in the name of political convenience was and remains without a doubt a great enabling and emboldening factor for the rise of extreme religious ideologies in the country.

The passage of the new law on mass organizations may represent a genuine desire at the very top of government to deal with the issue of radicalization. However, it can only ban radical groups in name only while their ideologies can survive in other forms and under different guises. With a national law threatening their existence, radical groups may even end up more united than ever.

The new law can only deliver maximum results if accompanied by consistent and coherent upholding of the law by the police and the courts. The fight against radicalism must necessarily take place in the consistent policing in the streets where acts of intolerance occur and in the courtrooms where perpetrators of intolerance are tried. No magic wand of banning radical groups could be a substitute.

Jokowi's protracted struggle with Islamist groups bent on opposing him in all things is set to continue as the 2019 elections, both legislative and presidential, approach.

The greatest irony of all is that back in the lead-up of the 2014 election, he was hailed by analysts and civil societies as the candidate best-suited to protect Indonesia’s democracy and minority rights. The image was further enforced as he was pitted against Prabowo Subianto, a former army general long believed to be the architect of various human rights transgressions when his father-in-law President Suharto was in power.

A role reversal appears to be in progress now in which Jokowi is pursuing illiberal strong-arm politics that could be detrimental to civil liberties while Prabowo is fighting on the side of free speech.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos