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Indonesia to muzzle radicals

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Move to crack down on hard-line Islamic group may be hampered by its links to the establishment

JAKARTA: Indonesia is moving to rein in an Islamic group which spearheaded protests against Jakarta's Christian governor, but experts warn it will be tough to bring to heel a network with close ties to the establishment.

The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has in recent years become the face of hard-line Islam in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, growing in influence despite being a fringe organisation whose extreme views are rejected by most.

The group has raided bars selling alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan, forced the cancellation of a concert by Lady Gaga - whom they dubbed "the devil's messenger" - with noisy protests, and led demonstrations against the Miss World beauty pageant when it came to Indonesia.

Led by firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab, the FPI helped organise mass rallies against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian.

The movement against Basuki - accusing him of insulting the Quran - propelled the hard-liners from being a marginal group to the centre of national politics, alarming observers and some in the government.

Now authorities are seeking to put the muzzle back on the radicals, with police stepping up an investigation into Rizieq in a move seen as supported by President Joko Widodo and his administration.

"This is unprecedented. It is the first time the president and government is openly challenging this group," Mr Tobias Basuki, an analyst from Jakarta think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP.

Last week, police named Rizieq a suspect for allegedly defaming Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, and the state ideology in a speech several years ago, meaning authorities believe there is enough evidence for him to stand trial.

Mr Basuki said successive governments had shied away from cracking down for fear of being accused of attacking Islam but the current administration decided to "make a stand".

Hundreds rally in support of Rizieq - who has served two jail terms in the past - when he is hauled in for questioning.

Authorities "want to stifle an Islamic people's movement, which is demanding justice against a blasphemer", said FPI spokesman Slamet Maarif.


While they often hit the headlines, the FPI does not have a huge following in the country of 255 million people.

It claims to have 4 million members but Mr Ian Wilson, an expert on the FPI from Australia's Murdoch University, estimated the figure at a maximum of 200,000.

Efforts to tackle the FPI are complicated by its history of links to some members of the establishment, who have used the group to carry out their dirty work, said Mr Guntur Romli, a progressive Muslim activist.

The FPI was founded in 1998 as Indonesia transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, and experts believe the military and police had a hand in its formation, hoping they could use the group against their enemies during the tumultuous period.

The police have been seen working with the FPI when it conducts raids, or standing by and taking no action.

While the current crackdown is viewed as long overdue, it may not do away with the FPI, with analysts doubting the government will disband the group. - AFP

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