FPI Mobs Ministry, Faces Freeze

Hundreds of members Indonesia’s hard-line Islamic Defenders Front stormed the Home Affairs Ministry in Jakarta Thursday, throwing rocks through the windows in protest of a ministry decision to alter regional bylaws concerning the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages.

The attack shocked government officials, who said later in the day that the government might finally act against the organization, known by its Indonesian initials FPI, as well as another fringe group, the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI), which has been vocal in the campaign against a Christian church in Bogor. On Friday, Jakarta Police said on Friday that it had questioned three witnesses in relation to the attack.

Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi said the ministry would “evaluate” both groups and “If necessary, we will freeze them.”

Gamawan Fauzi criticized the Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, the ruling Islamic religious body, for “spreading lies” over the bylaw revisions over the sale of alcohol. “Indonesian religious people like to comment, it’s their hobby,” Gamawan told reporters. “They know nothing about the case they are commenting on; they like to spread lies that tend to be slander. Why is MUI also commenting without bothering to check [the facts].”

The ministry on Tuesday was forced to reject reports by religious groups that it had revoked regional bylaws that limit or ban the sale of alcohol, in direct contravention of national legislation or presidential instructions.

It is questionable whether any action will be taken against the FPI, however. The organization is believed to have the backing of both the National Police and the military. The group's growing aggressiveness is increasingly worrisome to human rights groups, who say that the Islamist organization is nothing more than a collection of nearly uncontrollable thugs. Critics say President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's attitude was reflected in the Oct. 7, 2010 appointment of Timur Pradopo, who has strong ties to FPI, as national police chief. Questioned by members of the House of Representatives, Pradopo defended the organization.

The FPI has often resorted to violence, ransacking bars, threatening pork sellers and attacking peaceful demonstrations, particularly rallies of the Ahmadiyah sect. It has also tried to prevent Christian churches from being built in communities near Jakarta.

Since its inception in 1945, Indonesia has been guided by a philosophical construct rather than a state religion. Pancasila, as it is called, consists of five principles -- belief in god, a just and civilized humanity, national unity, democracy and social justice. This state ideology argues that all major religions can coexist, even if atheism and communism are banned.

In recent years, however, the concept has been badly strained, particularly by the FPI. In June 2008, an FPI gang attacked a rally celebrating Pancasila at the National Monument in central Jakarta, injuring 70 people. When human rights organizations demanded that something be done about an increasingly lawless group, Hendarman Supandji, the Attorney General, said the FPI would not be outlawed. And while Yudhoyono condemned the attack, he refused to order the police to take decisive action to crack down on FPI violence.

It is Ahmadiyah's 500,000-odd members in Indonesia who have taken the brunt of the intolerance and violence, although there have been other problems. A howling mob of 1,500 people attacked the headquarters of an Ahmadiyah sect in Banten Province, beating and hacking three to death and nearly severing the arm of the leader, Deden Sujana, with a machete. Stunningly, the district court found Deden at fault because he was one of a handful of members who attempted to stop the crowd from attacking the house where the group was staying, sentencing him to six months in jail. The 12 men involved in the violence, including the leader of the mob, received sentences of three to six months for carrying out the attacks

Islamic fundamentalists also have made increasingly incendiary speeches, gays have been threatened, Christian churches have been burned and their followers beaten. Christian groups in the Bekasi area of suburban Jakarta report systematic and disturbing increases in pressure on them.

After the attack on the Home Affairs ministry, Gunawan Fauzi said the Constitution may respect the right of these groups to exist, he said, but they need to obey the law. “We have decided to take two courses of action,” he said.

“First, we have already asked law enforcement to investigate the case and charge those responsible for the attack. Second, we’re going to evaluate the organizations, which might lead to freezing them over anarchic acts.”

Gunawan did not offer details on possible actions against the groups, if they would be permanently outlawed or their activities only temporarily halted.

Misbakhul Anam, the secretary of the FPI’s legislative council, was quick to apologize for the actions of the group’s members although he said the attack wouldn't have happened if Gunawan hade simply come out to meet with the demonstrators.

However, Diah Anggraini, the ministry’s secretary general, said that at the time of the rally Gamawan was attending a hearing at the House of Representatives to discuss special autonomy in Aceh. Diah added that the FPI and the FUI would have to face the legal ramifications of their members’ actions.

“We are officially apologizing and hopefully our good relations with the Home Affairs Ministry will not be disturbed by the incident,” Misbakhul said. The organization, he said, had attempted to control its members, and blamed the whole thing on youthful exuberance.

"They are young with high emotions and short fuses,” he said. However, photographers and eyewitnesses said the group were hardly youths and appeared to be composed of adults.

FPI member Subhan Burhanuddin said Gamawan’s actions were “hurting Muslims because alcohol [consumption] is prohibited by Allah.” Ministry spokesman Reydonnyzar Moenek said, however, that the ministry had not revoked any regional bylaws but rather had asked the regions to revise them so they would be in line with higher laws and regulations.

Reydonnyzar added that since 2000, the ministry had evaluated 9,000 regional bylaws and found that 351 had the potential to be problematic. Bylaws regarding regional taxes and route permits for public transportation, as well as the nine dealing with alcohol, were among them.

(With reporting from the Jakarta Globe)