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Why It Matters

Jakarta moves to curb hardliners

A presidential decree allowing the Indonesian government to disband any organisation, or criminalise its members, for threatening national unity has unexpectedly drawn criticism from conservative Islamic groups and human rights activists.

They say that among other things, the regulation in lieu of law - better known by its acronym Perppu - could be used to suppress the opposition or even religious minorities because it cites blasphemy as a possible violation. Some even say it risks setting the country back decades and returning it to the New Order, when Indonesians lived under former president Suharto's repressive regime.

The negative reaction to news that President Joko Widodo signed off on the Perppu last Monday was a surprise. After all, it was mooted to contain the rise of hardline Islamic groups calling for syariah law in a country with the world's largest Muslim-majority population. These include Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which wants to establish a global Islamic caliphate, and Front Pembela Islam (FPI). Both played leading roles in the mass street protests in Jakarta against the capital's former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

Some leaders of the groups have publicly incited violence against minorities, used hate speech to rouse a mob and threatened to destabilise the state.

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Mr Joko hinted that the Perppu could be used to disband HTI, while many observers saw it as a signal to FPI, or similar groups, that the government has a new tool to quell religion-based uprisings.

The problem is that none of these objectives was overtly stated in the Perppu.

If the President's move is meant as a show of his intent to uphold Indonesia's values of diversity and pluralism, it should still draw praise.

The question is whether the end justifies the means - especially if the Perppu may threaten the very same values it is meant to defend.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Jakarta moves to curb hardliners'. Print Edition | Subscribe