Indonesian rights activists protest crackdown on hardline Islamists

Muslim student activists take part in an anti-government rally in Jakarta on July 12, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Civil organisations in Indonesia on Wednesday (July 12) decried a move by the government to disband certain groups deemed to be in conflict with state's secular ideology.

The protests came after President Joko Widodo signed a decree on Monday widely believed to be aimed at containing the rise of hardline Islamist groups that call for sharia law in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

Islamist groups were instrumental in the downfall earlier this year of Jakarta's former governor, a Christian who was accused and subsequently jailed for insulting Islam.

The events, including massive and sometimes violent rallies led by hardliners and vigilantes, raised concerns about the erosion of Indonesia's long-standing image as a tolerant and pluralistic state. It has the world's largest Muslim population.

"This decree is proof that this regime is repressive, authoritarian, and even repeating what the New Order regime did," Ismail Yusanto, spokesman for Hizb-ut Tahrir Indonesia, referring to the rule of former strongman president Suharto, said in a statement that was echoed by human rights groups.

Suharto ruled Indonesia for 32 years during which he demanded loyalty to the secular state ideology Pancasila - or"five principles" - and discouraged the organisation of religious groups.

His downfall in 1998 ushered in democratic reforms, and alongside them a new-found freedom for hardline Islamist groups, many of which have been involved in harassing and violently attacking religious minorities, feminists and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.

Conservative Islamic civil society groups and New York-based Human Rights Watch also criticised the government's move.

Hizb-ut Tahrir is a peaceful organisation that calls for sharia (Islamic law) to be implemented in Indonesia and the government has said it will be disbanded.

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and sizeable communities of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and people who adhere to traditional beliefs. Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and the Pancasila.

The new decree allows for the government to disband organisations deemed to run counter to the Pancasila without taking them to court. "It must be underscored that this decree is not intended to discredit Islamic organisations or the majority Muslim population of Indonesia," chief security minister Wiranto told reporters on Wednesday. "It has been issued in the national interest."

He added that the decree had the backing of Indonesia's biggest moderate Islamic groups, which have millions of followers.

The decree adds that civil organisations are "not allowed to carry out activities that are the responsibility of law enforcement officials", in a reference to Islamist vigilante and anti-vice groups accused of harassing minorities.

The decree comes after public outrage over the jailing of ex-Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who many believe was unfairly targeted and represents the crumbling of Indonesia's pluralistic tradition.

President Widodo recently told Reuters that he believes the country's reputation for moderate Islam remains intact and that"pluralism has always been a part of the Indonesia's DNA".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.