On 16 November, the National Police (Polri) announced it had arrested three Islamist clerics on terrorism charges, alleging that they were affiliated with the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). The group has been found responsible for several high-profile terror attacks in Indonesia – including the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
Police said the three arrested clerics, Farid Okbah, Ahmad Zain an-Najah, and Anung al-Hamat, were members of JI’s board of religious advisors (Majelis Syuro), which is responsible for overseeing Islamic doctrine within the organisation. All three are also accused of being board members of the Abdurrahman Bin Auf Islamic charity, which according to police, is a front organisation used to finance JI activities.
The Polri indictment also accused Farid of establishing a new political party named the Indonesian People’s Propagation Party (PDRI) as a political vehicle for JI members. PDRI was founded in April 2021. Besides Farid – the party’s chairman – other party founders include Cholil Ridwan, former chairman of the Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council (DDII or Dewan Dakwah) and a senior figure in the organisation.
Ahmad Zain’s personal website indicates that he is the chair of DDII’s fatwa board and is also a member of the fatwa board of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), Indonesia’s quasi-governmental authority for Islamic affairs. It is known for issuing controversial fatwa in the past, including those that condemned the Ahmadiyah Muslim minority and accused former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama of committing blasphemy. The fatwa against Ahok played a significant role in the 2016-17 “Rallies to Defend Islam”, which contributed to Ahok’s re-election defeat and his ultimate conviction for blasphemy in 2017.
Farid and Ahmad Zain are also founders of the Indonesian Council of Young Islamic Clerics and Intellectuals (MIUMI). Other founders of the organisation include Bachtiar Nasir – a charismatic preacher who also founded the National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) – an umbrella organisation of Islamist clerics and groups that organised the anti-Ahok protests. After the protest, Nasir was named a suspect in relation to money laundering offences, allegedly committed to support the Islamic State rebellion in Syria. His case is still pending trial.
These organisational affiliations indicate that the arrest of the three men on 16 November may not necessarily be because of their alleged roles as JI religious advisors. Instead, the arrests might have more to do with their political activities during the “Rallies to Defend Islam,” organised by GNPF-MUI and Islamist groups affiliated with it, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), and DDII, among many others.
In response to the “Rallies to Defend Islam” and the growing political power of Islamist groups, which it viewed as a threat, the Joko “Jokowi” Widodo regime has legally prohibited HTI and FPI. It has resorted to repressive measures to further marginalise Islamist activists, including the arrest and conviction of FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, and several of his associates.
The arrest of the three men could be used as a springboard to investigate more Islamist clerics and activists who were involved with the movement. In particular, the accusation surrounding Farid and his newly founded party seems to indicate that the authorities might be interested in closely scrutinising DDII and its activists for any possible affiliation with JI and other extremist organisations.
DDII is renowned among conservative Islamists in Indonesia, who considered it a successor to the Masyumi Party – a conservative yet reformist Islamic party that was politically active during Indonesia’s first democratic period from 1950 to 1959, when it was banned by the Soekarno regime.
In 1967, Masyumi’s former leaders petitioned General Suharto to allow the party to be re-established, but were denied. In response, Masyumi’s long-term chairman, Mohammad Natsir, decided to establish DDII as a non-political Islamic preaching organisation, to allow former Masyumi activists to continue their political activism under the repressive Soeharto regime.
Over the following three decades, DDII became one of the few Islamist organisations that was able to operate legally in Indonesia, largely thanks to Natsir’s charisma and political influence. Media Dakwah – its weekly newsletter – featured not only criticism of the New Order regime’s political repression and corruption, but also condemnations of various religious minorities, ranging from Christians, to Ahmadiyah, and Shi’a Muslims.
DDII won respect from other Islamist activists because of its steadfastness in opposing the Soeharto regime for three-plus decades, as well as its Masyumi lineage. Human rights activists, on the other hand, condemned the organisation for its intolerance toward religious minorities. Nonetheless, the techniques it used to spread its various propaganda – publishing a newsletter and other pamphlets and disseminating them at low cost to Muslims – have been replicated by other conservative Islamist organisations founded during the post-Soeharto era.
Over time, DDII’s influence was overshadowed by newer, more politically savvy and aggressive Islamist organisations. Its leaders therefore decided to establish a new political party to revive its influence among Islamist clerics and activists ahead of the 2024 elections. After Prabowo Subianto disappointed Islamists by joining the Jokowi government, Islamists hope to unite behind a presidential candidate who in their mind will best advocate their interests, and transform Indonesian state and society to reflect their Islamist theological and political vision.
While more evidence is needed to assess the regime’s real motivation for arresting the clerics, it certainly would be one way of further neutralising Islamist opposition before the 2024 general election.
Banning DDII and its political party PDRI would have a lot of symbolic political value for the Jokowi regime, given DDII’s activism against the Soeharto regime and its historical ties with Masyumi. But such a move would risk further backlash from Islamist activists if they perceived the arrest to be motivated primarily by political instead of security considerations.
Arresting the three senior figures might well be one way of getting around this potentially messy political situation. But by arresting them using terrorism charges, the Jokowi regime is continuing its pattern of using heavy-handed tactics to suppress opposition from Islamist groups like DDII and curtailing their right to freely express their political beliefs – even if such beliefs are abhorrent to many Indonesians.