Asia

Indonesia goes after Islamists - finally

Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has been criticized for giving too much room to Islamists in Indonesia, but it seems the president is finally taking a decisive action. Rights groups fear that new measures could curb civil rights.

A supporter of radical Hizb ut-Tahrir group in Indonesia

Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party for Liberation) has been banned in Germany since 2003. The organization rejects the concept of nation states for Muslims and opposes democratic or secular forms of government. Instead, the Hizb ut-Tahrir wants to establish a global caliphate with Shariah (or Islamic law) as its legal foundation. The group itself does not get involved in violent attacks but instead works to radicalize members of Islamic organizations, including militants groups.

The organization is also active in Indonesia, with tens of thousands of members believed to be part of the HTI, or Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia. HTI members have held several anti-government demonstrations, demanding a "caliphate instead of democracy," abolition of liberal capitalism and the replacement of existing legal system with Shariah.

Read: Indonesia cracks down on pro-caliphate Islamic hardliners Hizbut Tahrir

For a long time, Indonesian authorities tolerated the group's activities. But last week, President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, paved the way for a decisive action against Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical groups operating in the country.

In a presidential decree, Jokowi authorized the government to ban all organizations that violate Indonesia's constitution and the official state ideology "Pancasila," which prescribes democracy, social justice and equal treatment for the followers of all religions.

Indonesien Nach den Bombenanschlägen in Jakarta (picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Syuflana)

President Jokowi, through his decree against the HTI, wants to posit himself as a strong leader

It is the first time since the fall of former leader Suharto's regime in 1998 that a decree of this kind has been issued in Indonesia. And it is not the only measure against radical Islamists. At the recent G20 summit in Hamburg, President Jokowi promised to go after radical Islamists with even more force.

A new anti-terrorism act intended to give the Indonesian military more powers to fight extremists is reportedly in the pipeline.

A show of force

The recent steps mark a significant policy change by President Jokowi, who in recent years has often been accused of being complacent with rising Islamist tendencies in his country.

At the beginning of the year, Islamic groups held mass protests against Ahok, Jakarta's former Christian governor, after he was accused of insulting the Muslim holy book, the Koran. Jokowi did not directly support his ally.

Read: Opinion: Blasphemy verdict mainstreams Islamization in Indonesia

Anti-Ahok rallies were organized by a radical organization called the Front for the Defense of Islam (FPI). In the past, the FPI had been involved in attacks on bars, nightclubs, churches and members of the Ahmaddiyyah Muslim sect, but President Jokowi chose to remain silent about the group's activities.

As this inaction has been interpreted by his opponents as his weakness, President Jokowi, through his decree against the HTI, wants to posit himself as a strong leader.

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According to the Indonesian magazine Kompas, the government will soon ban other Islamic organizations too. Some experts suggest that the emergence of "Islamic State"-affiliated groups in the Philippines has prompted this shift in Jokowi's thinking.

The "Islamic State" (IS) threat in Indonesia has long been emphasized with security analysts pointing to Indonesian jihadists receiving training from IS in Syria and Iraq.

According to Robikin Emhas, a legal expert in Indonesia, the Indonesian government could take more actions against Islamism.

"Just like cancer, whose cells grow and spread to the whole body in a short period of time, extremism too grows very quickly. Legal actions to deal with the situation are good, but unfortunately they are not enough," Emhas wrote.

Read: Investigation of Jakarta governor fuels fears of rising Islamism in Indonesia

Rights groups concerned

Indonesian Islamists have slammed President Jokowi's decree against Islamist groups. The HTI has already announced that it will challenge the ban.

But criticism also came from human rights groups that say the presidential decree is not only directed against radical Islamists but can also be used against any organization that challenges Indonesia's state ideology.

In February 2017, President Jokowi said that democracy in Indonesia had "gone too far."

"We can have democracy, but there is no place for liberalism, radicalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, terrorism or other such ideologies against the Pancasila," the president said.

Indonesian activists believe the new counterterrorism measures could be used to curtail fundamental human rights.

Read: Indonesia's internet law 'limits freedom of expression'

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