On December 30, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government moved to ban the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), one of the most prominent hardline Islamist groups in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. The ban was just the latest in a series of moves that were expected following the return of its head Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab from self-exile in Saudi Arabia. While the step has understandably raised concerns on various counts domestically including the state of the country’s democracy, it also once again spotlights the trajectory of political Islam in Indonesia more generally.
Despite the common use of the term “political Islam,” it remains difficult to assess its exact impact and account for the full diversity of experiences across the Muslim world. The headlines tend to focus on the cases where specific Islamic groups either turn to violence or score electoral victories – be it the Islamic State and its violent offshoots or the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief rule in Egypt following the 2011 Arab Spring cut short by the military. In reality, as more comprehensive studies have noted in recent years, the impact of these groups in the Middle East and in the wider Muslim world – be it the Jamaat e-Islami in Pakistan or Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) in Malaysia – can manifest in indirect yet profound ways relative to other actors in a wider political and societal context, from their cooptation by political elites to their influence on the passage of legislation.
Indonesia is a case in point. While heightened media attention to political Islam tends to come in response to specific incidents – be it high-profile blasphemy cases or acts of intolerance affecting minorities – these incidents conceal its broader role, particularly following the opening of politics following Suharto’s downfall in 1998, which created more space for a spectrum of Islamic groups, from mainstream ones such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which preach a moderate message to more hardline fringe groups like FPI. And as other scholars have observed, while these groups may not have the electoral support necessary to take power, their growing influence, which extends into other actors and wider society, have resulted in governments having to adjust their responses through a mix of tactics including acquiescence and confrontation. During Jokowi’s presidency, the most prominent example thus far had been the fallout from the blasphemy campaign against the ethnic Chinese Christian Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, which saw record protests in 2016 and 2017 where FPI had also featured.
Viewed from this perspective, Jokowi’s ban on FPI constitutes one more manifestation of these broader trends. Rizieq is no stranger to controversy in Indonesian politics: he was himself a key figure in previous developments such as the aforementioned Ahok protests, his self-exile was itself a subject during the lead-up to the 2019 Indonesian election contest between Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto, and his return has seen him engage with a range of individuals including Anies Baswedan, viewed as a potential presidential contender in 2024. Even before he had returned to Indonesia, there were anxieties about the challenges he could pose for the Jokowi government, which, despite Jokowi’s own personal popularity, faces no shortage of challenges in 2021, including with respect to COVID-19. And legal moves such as the ban – as we have seen with other uses such as the 2017 one on another Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir – cannot detract from wider issues that will continue to be at play this year and beyond, including the Jokowi government’s broader management of religion’s role in politics and how FPI’s influence relates to wider societal dynamics such as majority-minority relations.
These realities do not understate the significance of the FPI ban as an incident or the need to continue to monitor its fallout amid wider developments that will spotlight political Islam more generally, be it the formation of a new Islamist group or the expected release of Abu Bakar Bashir, a radical cleric linked to the deadly 2002 Bali bombings. But they do underscore the importance of moving beyond the episodic focus on these groups and their actions and viewing them from a more historical and holistic perspective to understand their true impact that takes into account the role of religion in Indonesia, the wider political and societal environment they are operating in along with regional and international developments in the Muslim world, and the opportunities and challenges created for the Indonesian state in managing these dynamics. Ultimately, it is this broader aperture, rather than a narrower one that emphasizes individual acts or events, that can help us more fully understand the role and impact of political forces and movements.