Jewel Topsfield and Karuni Rompies, Jakarta – The Indonesian government has banned Islamic organisation Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, claiming it needs to safeguard the existence of the nation's pluralist state ideology Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution.
Hizbut Tahrir, which keeps its membership numbers secret, is opposed to democracy and campaigns peacefully for a global caliphate governed by Sharia law.
The ban comes a week after Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a regulation that gave the government the power to disband a mass organisation it considers threatens the unity of the country without going through the court process.
Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, which has already announced it would challenge the new government regulation in the Constitutional Court, said it would mount a separate legal challenge to the ban. "I think this is a clear form of injustice," spokesman Ismail Yusanto told Fairfax Media. "What have we done wrong?"
Both the regulation and a ban on Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia are controversial amid concerns they are an unnecessary setback for democracy and could backfire on the President.
Critics point out that Hizbut Tahrir has no history of violence unlike other hardline Islamic organisations, such as the Islamic Defenders' Group (FPI), which is infamous for its vigilante activities against minority groups.
Human rights activists also argue a ban is a violation of freedom of association and a throwback to the authoritarian Suharto regime, which used a government decree to ban the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, in 1966.
Riot police guarded the law ministry building on Wednesday ahead of the announcement of the ban but there were no immediate protests.
In a brief statement, Director General for the Administration of General Law, Freddy Harris, said HTI's legal status had been revoked in order to safeguard the existence of the Pancasila and 1945 Constitution.
Australian National University Associate Professor Gregory Fealy said while the government claimed there were pressing security and legal reasons for banning HTI, the real reason appeared to be political.
He said that since the massive Islamist uprising against the former Christian governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, which paved the way to him being jailed for blasphemy, the Jokowi government had been scrambling to counter rising Islamist power.
"HTI was one of four Islamist organisations that led the anti-Ahok campaign and the government probably regarded it as the easiest target," he wrote in The Interpreter. "The ban on HTI looks very much like an abuse of state power for political aims."
Jakarta-based terrorism analyst Sidney Jones said that ironically one of those most delighted with the HTI ban would be Bahrun Naim, a Syria-based Islamic State leader from Indonesia.
"Writing in a blog post from Syria on May 9, he said he had long criticised his former colleagues for failing to understand who the real enemy was and taking too flexible a position against apostate officials," she wrote in onlinetoday.com
"Now he said, he hoped HTI would follow the example of Hizbut Tahrir in Uzbekistan, a group which eventually abandoned its do-nothing stance and took up jihad against the government."