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Why banning ‘extremist groups’ is dangerous for Indonesia

- July 19, 2017
People listen to an imam during a protest against Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known widely as “Ahok,” on March 31 in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Ed Wray/Getty Images)

Last week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed into law a decree to make it easier for his government to ban any group it deems “extremist.” It also established criminal penalties for being a member or leader of a banned group and for participating in violence or vigilantism as part of one ranging from five years to life in prison.

This decree represents a step not even taken at the height of Indonesian terrorism, when hotels, churches and bars were bombed between 1999 and 2005. Critics of the law argue it has the potential to cause serious consequences for Indonesia’s stability, security and democracy.

Before passing the decree, if the government sought to ban a group, it had to first issue three warnings. If that did not resolve the matter, there could be a lengthy court process with appeals all the way to the Supreme Court. There were no provisions enabling the imprisonment of activists for their attitudes, aspirations or nonviolent activities. By contrast, the new decree only requires the government to give one week’s notice of intent — no warnings and no court process.

Islamist extremism: A marginal fringe

One reason violent Islamist extremism has remained a marginal fringe in Indonesia is the decision by iterated democratically elected administrations not to restrict political participation to those groups supportive of the Indonesian national ideology, Pancasila, a general set of principles that include monotheism, social justice, humanitarianism, democracy through deliberation and consensus and unity in diversity.

In the past, the government forced organized groups to take Pancasila as their sole foundation, driving underground groups that sought to keep Islam as their central organizing principle. Those who sought an Islamic state wanted to change Pancasila to provide provisions stipulating an obligation for Muslims to obey Islamic law.

Those laws on religious organizations were rolled back shortly after Indonesia transitioned to democracy to allow groups to set Islam (or Christianity or other ideologies) as their philosophical foundation. This move provided space for those seeking Islamic law and the implementation of an Islamic state to form social movements and political parties; hold demonstrations, congresses and workshops; to endorse political actors; to preach at mosques; and to build alliances with like-minded groups.

The law also allowed for a critical space where groups could be anti-Pancasila or ambivalent toward Pancasila; supportive of transforming Indonesia into an Islamic state and implementing Islamic law; and anti-Islamic State.

Demonstrations calling for the conviction of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — also known as “Ahok” — for blasphemy saw participation by current and former members of Islamist extremist groups. By contrast, the leaders of pro-Islamic State groups called on their members to disrupt the protest. Eliminating that space and driving such groups underground could potentially have an unintended further radicalizing effect. Instead of bringing formerly clandestine Islamist extremist groups from the shadows into the realm of “uncivil” society, this legislation could have the reverse effect.

Why ban Hizb ut-Tahrir?

In May 2017, one of the government ministers behind the decree called for a specific Islamist group called Hizb ut-Tahrir to be banned in Indonesia, charging that its activities ran contrary to Pancasila. Hizb ut-Tahrir — a transnational group that calls for the eventual establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate — had been careful to avoid making statements that were explicitly anti-Pancasila. The group clarified that even though it may use the same terminology as the Islamic State, it differs with the terrorist group in significant ways: It does not accept Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its leader or consider the land claimed by the Islamic State to be an actual caliphate.

There are an estimated 40,000 Hizb ut-Tahrir activists in Indonesia. Hizb ut-Tahrir has long been a fixture of Islamist activism. It had been active in campaigns in support of sharia-friendly bills, including campaigns in favor of the 2006 and 2008 anti-pornography bills. More recently, Hizb ut-Tahrir aggravated the Widodo administration for taking a leading role in the anti-Ahok campaign. Ahok had served under Widodo, also known as “Jokowi,” as vice governor of Jakarta.

The day after issuing the decree, Jokowi formally banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, a move that is likely to exacerbate polarization between the government and Islamist groups. The decision to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir has been widely panned by media, human rights groups, the academic community as well as legal experts as dictatorial and wholly unnecessary. As one Human Rights Watch researcher put it — the decree is the equivalent of “shooting sparrows with a cannon.”

Challenges for the future

This decree, if enforced, would mean Islamists could face a future without the space to advocate for the transformation of Indonesian society and the state without fear of imprisonment.

It could lay the groundwork for a scenario in which individuals find themselves facing long prison terms for espousing support for an Islamic state or for criticizing state officials on the grounds that they would be committing what the bill terms “acts of hostility,” a broadly worded umbrella encompassing speech, attitude and writing both online and in print that has the potential to evoke hatred.

Should this decree be enforced against militant Islamist groups broadly, it could also undermine carefully constructed narratives within Islamic militant communities that say that Indonesia is not an appropriate place to conduct terrorist actions at this time because Indonesia does not oppress Muslims and Muslims are not under threat.

Julie Chernov Hwang is an associate professor of political science and international relations at Goucher College and author of “Why Terrorists Quit: The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadists” (forthcoming February 2018, Cornell University Press).