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As Indonesia Targets Islamist Hard-Liners, Even Rights Groups Object

By Jon Emont

July 19, 2017

The Indonesian government on Wednesday officially banned a hard-line Islamist group that wants to establish a global caliphate and that organized protests that rocked the country last year.

The move against the group, Hizbut Tahrir, has been hailed by pluralist Muslim groups as a necessary step for halting the rise of radical Islam. But conservative Muslim organizations and human rights groups criticized the decision as unnecessarily punitive.

“It’s a sad day for Indonesia’s fledgling democracy,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia director of Human Rights Watch. “Hizbut Tahrir might be a controversial group but it should have the right to appeal the banning.”

The government banned the group under powers granted by a new presidential decree last week that progressive civil society groups widely opposed. Under that decree, organizations that are banned by the government lose their right to appeal.

The pluralist government announced its intention to ban Hizbut Tahrir with much fanfare in May, arguing that the group’s call for the creation of a global caliphate was a rejection of the Constitution and pluralist state ideology.

Banning the organization has become the government’s signature move in confronting the rise of hard-line Islamism in Indonesia, whose generally moderate brand of Islam is seen as under threat by hard-line forces.

That challenge was highlighted in April, when Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s governor and the country’s highest-ranking Christian politician, was voted out of office after Hizbut Tahrir and other hard-line Muslim groups staged mass rallies against him. Mr. Basuki was later sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy after making comments deemed insulting to Islam.

Mr. Basuki was a close ally of the pluralist president, Joko Widodo. Analysts see the government’s efforts to ban Hizbut Tahrir as part of a broader effort by Mr. Joko to rein in the hard-line Islamist forces opposed to his administration before presidential elections in 2019.

Thanks to aggressive moves by Mr. Joko’s administration, many of the Islamist leaders who led the campaign against Mr. Basuki are in exile or prison.

Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front, has been named a suspect in a pornography case after being accused of sending racy text messages to a female follower; he fled to Saudi Arabia to avoid a police summons. Muhammad al Khaththath, another hard-line leader who oversaw one of the major demonstrations against Mr. Basuki, is in prison, charged with attempting a coup.

Hizbut Tahrir, however, is the first Islamic organization to be officially banned by the government instead of its leaders facing charges at an individual level.

Mohammad Nuruzzaman, head of strategic research for Ansor, a pluralist Muslim youth organization whose paramilitary divisions have aggressively disrupted Hizbut Tahrir gatherings, welcomed the decision to ban the group officially.

“Hizbut Tahrir doesn’t openly call for violence,” Mr. Nuruzzaman said. But he added: “It threatens Indonesia’s national ideology and Constitution. That’s why we support the ban.”

Taufik Andrie, a terrorism expert who is the director of the Institute for International Peace Building, said the ban could lead some followers of Hizbut Tahrir to embrace terrorism.

“I worry that members of the Hizbut Tahrir who are disappointed with the decision will view the government as repressive, and will shift from nonviolence to violence,” he said.

Many countries have banned Hizbut Tahrir, including China, Germany and some Arab countries, often because its call for a global caliphate is seen as a challenge to fundamental state ideology.

Still, experts cautioned that the ban may not be effective. Hizbut Tahrir functioned as an underground university-based organization during the Suharto dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s, and may well try to return to those roots.

“Of all the Islamic organizations in Indonesia, this is the one that’s most likely to be able to survive underground,” said Ken Ward, a former intelligence analyst with the Australian government who has studied the group, citing its secrecy.