Defenders of Islam “Rent-a-Jihad”?

Indonesia 2000

By Holger Jensen

June 09, 2009

JAKARTA , Indonesia June 27, 2000 -- Lately, hundreds of Muslim fundamentalists clad in white T-shirts and white Islamic caps have been running amok in the streets of this Indonesian capital, breaking beer bottles, smashing storefronts that advertise liquor and trashing bars and nightclubs.

They call themselves the Front for the Defense of Islam, or FPI by its Indonesian initials.

Some contemptuously dismiss them as "Rent-a-Jihad," fanatics for hire being used by the police to muscle in on protection rackets currently controlled by the Indonesian Marines. Others say they are manipulated by political parties or members of the old Suharto crowd intent on estabilizing the newly democratic government of President Abdurrahman Wahid.

It is hard to determine the truth here because Indonesia is like an onion. Peel off one layer and you find another. Besides, Jakarta abounds with conspiracy theories. But it is true that police have done nothing to stop the rampages, and government officials are reluctant to criticize the FPI for fear of being labeled un-Islamic.

Its leader, Al-Habib Muhammad Rizieq bin Hussein Syihab, is a 35-year-old high school teacher of Islamic studies and claims a following of 15 million youths ranging in age from 17 to 25 -- clearly an exaggeration. If he is indeed renting out young thugs he's not making much money at it.

His home, which also serves as the FPI's headquarters, is located in a dingy alley near Jakarta's main hospital. It is not air conditioned and appeared to have a leaky roof. Sitting shoeless on a wet carpet in his tiny reception room, acutely aware of a hole in my sock, I was offered sweet tea as Rizieq explained how FPI got started.

"We have been in the planning stages since 1990 but couldn't really operate under Suharto," he said. "Only after the old regime was overthrown could we come out in the open. On Aug. 17, 1998, the movement was spontaneously declared by our youth, public figures and Muslim clerics.

"We are fighting two things: the high rate of criminal acts and violence in Indonesia, and the spread of prostitution, gambling, drugs and alcohol. We do not seek an Islamic state but we want the government to be stern and strict in curbing these social ills."

Does FPI have any political affiliations?

"It has not yet crossed our minds to think about politics. We are more concerned with social affairs. But we want to uphold human rights and we are against violence. We have very strong restrictions on hurting people, stealing, setting fires, because that could hurt people, or exploding bombs."

If you support human rights, why did FPI attack the headquarters of the National Commission on Human Rights? And if you are against violence, why did several hundred FPI members then storm through a Jakarta suburb chanting "Allahu Ahbar" -- God is great -- and destroying private property with bamboo sticks and iron bars?

Both had happened the previous day. The residential suburb of Kemang is home to many foreign businessmen and wealthy Indonesians who are not Muslims, see nothing wrong with drinking alcohol and are beginning to feel their rights as citizens of a secular state are being violated by a bunch of Muslim fanatics.

"You have to differentiate between action and reaction," said Rizieq. "Don't look at what happened yesterday as an action but as a reaction against bars and clubs that are becoming intolerable.

"The Human Rights Commission was attacked because it was being unfair to Muslims. Our instructions were to demonstrate, not ruin property, but some of the youths got angry and engaged in excesses. We regret what happened but we cannot blame the youth."

It has been rumored that FPI is getting money from former military commanders and Suharto cronies trying to stir up trouble. What is the source of its funding and support?

"We are independent. We get donations from fellow Muslims but have no military backing or Suharto allies. We wouldn't last long if we did. We have no political affiliations, although our members are allowed to belong to any party they choose."

So if you're not interested in achieving your goals through the political process, what tactics do you consider legitimate?

"We will always try to use peaceful methods and negotiate. But some government officials are deaf. Then we have to go the hard way."

Does that "hard way" include weapons more lethal than sticks and iron bars? Do you have such weapons?

"That is information I cannot reveal. But I would like to point out it is easy to get weapons in Indonesia. You can buy a hand grenade for 1 million rupiah ($120). And any group can be made to feel the use of weapons is justified if it cannot achieve its ends by any other means.

"One day we may have to use such weapons."

The muezzin in a nearby mosque starts calling the faithful to prayer. The interview is over.