Amy Chew – Indonesian opposition leader Prabowo Subianto will play a "mediatory role" between the government and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) if authorities refuse to renew the operating licence of the hardline group, which campaigns for a caliphate in the secular Muslim nation.
The offer, which was made through his spokesman on Tuesday, follows hints by the country's President Joko Widodo over the weekend that the FPI could be banned in an effort to tackle a growing wave of conservatism that has seen attacks against minorities. Widodo said outlawing the group was "entirely possible".
Irawan Ronodipuro, director of foreign relations for Prabowo's Great Indonesia Movement Party, told the Post that their leader stood ready and willing to help. "Prabowo will play a mediatory role if the FPI's licence is revoked," he said.
The FPI's registration with authorities as a "mass organisation" expired on June 20 and the group has submitted a request for an extension.
On Tuesday, Indonesian home affairs minister Tjahjo Kumolo was quoted by local media as saying "all aspects" of the request were being "checked", especially whether the FPI "accepts Pancasila" – the official, foundational philosophical theory of Indonesia that spells out a commitment to democracy, social justice, and a unified nation.
FPI founder Habib Rizieq has previously called on followers to remain "steadfast" in their fight for a caliphate and show no fear, in accordance with what he says are the teachings of Islam.
"The FPI declared its support for Islamic State when their caliphate was first established [in 2014]. It has also conducted prayers for Osama bin Laden," said Robi Sugara, lecturer and counterterrorism analyst at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University in Jakarta.
But Ronodipuro said Prabowo believed that as long as the FPI "respects the basic tenets of Pancasila" and the Indonesian constitution's commitment to secularism, then the group should not be ostracised.
"Prabowo believes in the basic democratic norm of the right to assembly, and if the FPI were to be banned, this would set a bad precedent and potentially set the stage for more bans on civil organisations," Ronodipuro said.
Sugara welcomed Prabowo's offer to mediate, saying the politician was someone who "knows how to handle" the FPI.
Established in 1998, the hardline Islamist group has seen several of its members travel to Syria to join Isis. Counterterrorism officials believe the organisation had a hand in the second Bali bombing of 2005 and a 2009 blast at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.
Other members have joined the pro-Isis group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah in several places across Indonesia, including Lamongan regency in East Java and the port city of Makassar in South Sulawesi. That group was behind most of the major terror attacks in the country over the past four years, according to Sugara.
The FPI has also been implicated in multiple acts of mob violence, harassment, intimidation, and threats against religious minorities, according to Human Rights Watch.
Sugara said "the government will surely evaluate this group based on its many acts of violence". But the scholar stopped short of recommending a ban, saying it would represent a slide back to the repressive ways of late dictator Suharto, and could trigger a political and social backlash.
In 2017 another radical pro-caliphate group, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, was outlawed through a decree signed by Widodo for opposing Pancasila. Last week the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict warned that the government's tougher stance against religious hardliners risked fuelling a narrative of repression that would give radical groups a cause to unite around.
The administration's stiffer line follows unrest in May over Indonesia's disputed presidential elections, when Prabowo's supporters, backed by Islamist groups including the FPI, took to the streets, triggering a two-day riot in which nine people died. The demonstrators accused Widodo of vote rigging.
Sugara said the government should instead set out new guidelines to regulate religious organisations, which should include stipulations that Islamic groups contain well-educated members with reputable qualifications from respected educational institutions.
"The main issue with radical Islamic organisations all this while is that they do not have competent members with proven formal education who are experts in Islamic history, Islamic jurisprudence, [or] interpretation of the Holy Koran," he said.
"Look at Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah... they are moderate because they have many members who are competent in religion. But in the FPI... their [religious] credibility is questionable."
Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah are the biggest moderate Muslim organisations in the country. The former has 60 million followers while the latter has about 40 million. Members include well-regarded Islamic scholars and university lecturers.
During April's elections, Prabowo was supported by an alliance of hardline Islamist groups, with the FPI leading the charge. The outpouring of support from this sector of society raised concern among nationalists, moderates and minorities, including LGBT groups, who worry the current trend of conservatism will accelerate.
FPI leader Rizieq, who is currently living in Saudi Arabia, fled the country in 2017 to evade police investigation over his alleged involvement in a pornography case. Though that probe was later dropped, police have said there are still several other pending cases against him.
One of Prabowo's campaign promises was to bring Rizieq home. On Tuesday Prabowo's spokesman called for reconciliation with the government so Rizieq could return to his homeland.
"Prabowo has encouraged Jusuf Kalla [Indonesia's vice-president] that the government should open a dialogue with Habib Rizieq Shihab," Ronodipuro said.
"In the spirit of national unity, as you can see, Prabowo Subianto is doing what he can and what is best for the grand interest of the Republic of Indonesia."