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Curfews, Obligatory Prayers, Whippings: Hard-Line Islam Emerges in Indonesia

The Wall Street Journal logo The Wall Street Journal 14/9/2017 James Hookway

In the Indonesian market town of Cianjur, new rules require government workers to clock in with their thumb prints at a downtown mosque to confirm attendance at morning prayers. That’s on the order of district chief Irvan Rivano Muchtar, who also wants a 10 p.m. curfew for the town and is sending police to stop teenage girls and boys hanging out without parental supervision.

The 36-year-old elected official, who belongs to a mainstream, secular political party, likes traveling and listening to bands such as Coldplay. These days, he said, Islam is the key to political success.

Hard-line Islamic groups are using the country’s democratic system to promote new, Shariah-based laws, and have built support among citizens with charity work and public preaching. Being pulled in their wake are politicians such as Mr. Muchtar, and in concert, these forces are tipping a country known for its moderate brand of Islam toward the more politicized form associated with the Middle East.

“I didn’t come from a pesantren, so I have to learn and follow the culture,” said Mr. Muchtar, using the local term for an Islamic school. “I’m ready to recite the Quran, and sing rock ’n’ roll.”

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country, has laws protecting the rights of Christians and other groups, a robust democracy and an open economy attracting investors such as Toyota Motor Co. and Samsung Electronics Co. There is a Hooters restaurant in Jakarta, where female staff in skimpy outfits serve up spicy chicken wings and frosted glasses of beer.

In recent years, lobbying groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front have helped introduce more than 400 Shariah-inspired laws, including those that penalize adultery, force women to wear headscarves and restrict them from going out at night.

© Muhammad Fadli for The Wall Street Journal

They are supported by a popular mood that has turned more religiously conservative. Protesters last month forced officials to cover a 100-foot statue at a Confucian temple they called an affront to Islamic traditions. Over the past year other conservatives have demolished statues in Java and Sumatra depicting characters from traditional, pre-Islamic folk tales.

Women wearing headscarves are more visible, and the wait time for the limited permits to attend the Hajj to Mecca have risen to 30 years, from two years in 2000, according to government data.

Local elections take place across the country next year, and a presidential vote is scheduled for 2019. Some political analysts and local leaders expect conservative Muslims to expand their footprint. Some potential challengers to President Joko Widodo, a religious moderate, already are aligning themselves with hard-liners. “They are playing the long game,” said Sidney Jones, a director at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta.

One hard-line group that has seen success is the Islamic Defenders Front, known locally as FPI. In April it helped engineer the electoral defeat of Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian and close ally of Mr. Widodo.

The group and other conservative Muslims accused Mr. Purnama of blasphemy, a criminal offense, and organized mass protests to demand his prosecution. He lost re-election, was convicted and is serving a two-year prison sentence.

“The [Jakarta] governor election turned the FPI into something bigger than it had ever been before,” said Ms. Jones. “No one would have thought of it as a political power broker, and now that’s the role it has assumed.”

The FPI’s vision is clear. “The end goal is for [Indonesia] to be based on Shariah,” said Slamet Maarif, the group’s spokesman. That includes being whipped for violating rules concerning alcohol and extramarital sex.

“If you want to practice Islam, you cannot just be cherry picking. You should follow everything,” he said.

Other groups involved in the protests against Mr. Purnama question the economic influence of Indonesia’s minority ethnic-Chinese population, many of whom are Christian. Islamic leader Bachtiar Nasir, leader of the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwas of the Indonesian Ulemas Council, wants Indonesia to follow its neighbor Malaysia by introducing an affirmative-action program to provide indigenous Indonesians with better access to capital and contracts.

Mr. Widodo, the president, was caught off guard by the strength of the Purnama protests, which were among the largest in Indonesia’s history, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

After not engaging with protesters for weeks, Mr. Widodo joined them at a prayer rally once Mr. Purnama’s political survival seemed in doubt.

More recently, his administration banned Hizbut Tahrir, a group that dreams of making Indonesia part of an international Islamic caliphate. During his annual state of the nation speech to parliament last month, the president, dressed in a traditional sarong instead of the usual business suit, said the country must unite behind its founding principles of respect for different faiths.

Police are investigating FPI founder Rizieq Shihab on suspicion of breaking Indonesia’s strict pornography laws, which were approved partly at the FPI’s behest several years ago, after he allegedly exchanged lewd text messages and images with a female admirer. Mr. Shihab, who has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia, denies wrongdoing.

Mr. Widodo has encouraged moderate Muslim groups to join his efforts to reassert Indonesia’s older, more inclusive traditions. One group, Nahdlatul Ulama, or Awakening of the Muslims, was formed in 1926 to resist ascetic strains of Islam from the Arabian peninsula. It is providing safe houses for people who have come under attack from the FPI for criticizing Mr. Shihab.

Indonesia began tilting toward a more austere version of Islam about two decades ago. A sprawling nation of 18,000 islands, it has long had a hard-line minority kept in check by a strong central government.

After the fall of autocrat Suharto in 1998, Jakarta devolved some powers to local provinces to prevent the rise of another dictator. Around the same time, Saudi Arabia began spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build mosques and schools in Indonesia to export its fundamentalist strain of Islam. FPI’s founder, Mr. Shihab, attended a Saudi-funded Islamic university in Jakarta and later studied in Saudi Arabia.

Many hard-liners view Aceh province, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, as a role model. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed nearly 170,000 people in the province, Indonesia’s government offered even more autonomy to local leaders to help speed reconstruction. The leaders introduced Shariah laws, based on Islamic teachings. In 2015, the laws were further tightened to permit caning for a wide range of moral offenses, from selling alcohol to gay sex.

A public caning there in May made national headlines. Ten people, including two men who had sex with each other, and an unmarried heterosexual couple who had been alone together, were struck by hooded enforcers in front of a roaring crowd.

Aceh remains the only place in Indonesia where Shariah forms the basis of the criminal code. Polling data is sparse, but a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 72% of Indonesian Muslims favored applying Shariah principles nationwide.

The FPI, with its cell-like organization and its followers’ white, paramilitary-style uniforms, is the most visible example of the growing strength of Indonesia’s conservative religious groups.

In its early days the group was known for smashing up Jakarta bars or scrawling graffiti such as “Jew-Free Zone.” U.S. diplomats have said the FPI served as a kind of paramilitary force for the police to extract bribes from brothels and other illegal businesses.

Mr. Maarif, the group’s spokesman, acknowledges working with police “like brothers” but denies being paid to do so.

Over time, the FPI revised its strategy to widen its appeal. It found new audiences on Facebook and other social media—often teenagers and young men.

FPI stepped into the national scene in the mid-2000s, when it drummed up protests against a no-nudes Indonesian edition of Playboy magazine. In 2012 it forced Lady Gaga to scrap a Jakarta concert, and the following year it compelled a Miss World pageant to move from the capital to the predominantly-Hindu island of Bali.

It successfully lobbied Indonesia’s Supreme Court in 2013 to overrule the government and allow local authorities to restrict sales of alcohol, arguing it was eating away at traditional Islamic values. In 2015, national authorities banned convenience stores from selling beer and liquor, contributing to the decision of the local franchisee for 7-Eleven to close its 160-plus stores in the country earlier this year.

“We still wreck bars. I want to emphasize that we still do that,” said Novel Bamukmin, another FPI leader with a punchy preaching style. But he said the group has used social media to grow. “We can reach a lot more people now.”

On Sept. 6, the FPI led a rally in Jakarta to protest Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

The group now has offices in 30 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces. It relentlessly raises funds at prayer rallies, and has built public support through charitable projects.

Over the past year it has been preaching and handing out food, water and tarps in Jakarta’s poor Kampung Akuarium neighborhood after the city government demolished homes for a new luxury housing development, displacing residents who worked nearby at the fishing port.

“They’re still helping us. It’s important just to know that someone is there because this situation is so stressful,” said Suyitono, a 63-year-old. (Many Indonesians use one name.)

The outreach programs reinforce Islamic values in many areas, said Fatah Sulaiman, a vice rector at Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa University in Serang, a city just east of Jakarta where the FPI also has a strong presence. “The politicians don’t have much choice but to follow,” he said.

The FPI had been looking for a way to oust Mr. Purnama, the former Jakarta governor, for years because it objected to the city of 14 million being ruled by a Christian. When Mr. Purnama last year made a lighthearted reference to a Quran verse that said Muslims shouldn’t be led by members of other faiths, the FPI accused him of blasphemy.

The group helped organize protests in Jakarta, including one with an estimated 500,000 people, many dressed in white, to demand his prosecution.

When campaigning began for the April elections, the FPI backed Anies Baswedan, a former university rector with a reputation as a moderate who cultivated the group’s support by meeting with them and reassuring them he had a conservative stance on social issues such as gay rights.

Mr. Baswedan won the vote comfortably. His political mentor, Prabowo Subianto, a politician who ran against Mr. Widodo for president in 2014 and is a likely presidential candidate in 2019, publicly thanked the FPI for its help in the win.

The FPI is now focusing on swaying the election in West Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo, by putting up posters and holding prayer rallies. When the Christian governor there leaves office after reaching his term limit next year, they want to make sure a conservative Muslim succeeds him.

Write to James Hookway at

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