Indonesia’s Hizbut Tahrir Debate Rages on Amid Election Fever

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Indonesia’s Hizbut Tahrir Debate Rages on Amid Election Fever

Despite a recent decision, the debate about the group shows few signs of ending anytime soon.

Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), forcibly disbanded last year by the Indonesian government, has had its day in court, and it has not ended well. While the challenge was swiftly turfed by the Jakarta State Administrative Court on Monday, citing the group’s incompatibility with Pancasila, Indonesia’s founding ideology, the debate rages on.

When it was initially founded in the 1950s, HTI had its hands in several parts of the Islamic world, with an ideology seeking a transnational caliphate practicing Sharia law and uniting Muslim-majority states. But the influence of the group has since largely waned across the world relatively speaking, and it is banned in much of Europe and the Arab states.

Indonesia had until last year largely quietly tolerated the organization, and there were a number of mass demonstrations and events over the last two decades. HTI is suspected of having been linked to varying degrees to terror group Jemaah Islamiyah in the 2000s and then again to the Indonesian arm of Islamic State via Bahrun Naim, the mastermind behind the 2006 Thamrin attack in Central Jakarta.

A controversial presidential decree signed by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in July last year gave him the authority to disband groups that challenge “national unity and the existence of the Indonesian nation.” The decree followed months of religious- and racially-charged violence in the capital amid a heated gubernatorial campaign, and prompted scores of criticism when HTI was the first target. HTI bills itself as a nonviolent movement seeking the establishment of a caliphate via peaceful methods, and the ban was widely criticized as a power grab by the president and an abandonment of due process.

“The move just shows an arbitrary action aimed at disbanding Hizbut Tahrir. [HTI] is a legal religious organization and has been spreading its messages peacefully, in an orderly manner, in accordance with the law,” HTI spokesman Ismail Yusanto told media at the time, vowing to fight on.

Mass demonstrations outside the court Monday proved what many commentators suspected last year – it may be easy to strike out an organization through a decree, but it takes a lot more to kill an ideology. Indeed, with a membership base believed to be in the tens of thousands by one count, forcing HTI onto the defensive may yet prove to be an egregious mistake. Speaking to The Guardian shortly after the ruling, Todd Elliott, a political analyst at Concord Consulting, said HTI had been seen as a soft target by the government, which was keen to stamp out burgeoning radical and extremist groups amid the mayhem of the election.

This could have been a misstep, Elliott said, and by targeting a group which is strictly nonviolent it could force the radicalism of members who feel under siege by a government who does not care that HTI had played by the rules.

While HTI is still only exploring legal and political avenues – and this at this stage there is no reason to suspect anything more than that – it is clear this defeat is not seen as the end by members.

“If we accept, that means accepting injustice, that we allow injustice and we accept that preaching our ideals is wrong. Are you willing to let the teachings of Islam be blamed?” Yusanto told CNN Indonesia.

HTI has secured support from at least one political party, with the National Mandate Party (PAN), reiterating its stance that the decree is “arbitrary” and goes beyond the scope of the government. PAN argues, as did many independent observers and political activists last year, that the decree opens up the possibility for the government to disband other groups and organizations with which it disagrees.

Partai Bulan Bintang (PBB), or Crescent Star Party, has gone one step further, with chairman Yusril Ihza Mahendra inviting former HTI members to join the party and run as candidates. PBB has become the favored party among Islamic hardliners off the back of its vocal rhetoric opposing the Jokowi government and this decree in particular. Speaking to local investigative journalism outlet Tirto, Yusanto was coy to outline the exact relationship between HTI and PBB, but noted that a HTI endorsement would be a vote-winner for the party ahead of next year’s elections.

With so far only HTI to be disbanded under the decree and a torrent of criticisms opened up for the Jokowi government, the question remains – has it been worth it? Disabling a loud but toothless organization has forced members to push its ideology through other avenues. Becoming a legitimate political threat could prove far more destabilizing to Pancasila and Indonesia than a vocal contingent at rallies.