Members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) holding an anti-Ahmadiyah rally in Jakarta. Author photo.

“Democracy is more haram than pig’s meat!” declared Habib Rizieq, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) at a meeting of the organisation in 2013. Aside from being a harbinger of apostasy, Rizieq also claims democracy and its system of one-person one-vote is an insult to the moral authority of Islamic scholars such as himself, as “the voice of a prostitute or a drunk is of equal value”.

Despite this unambiguous rejection of democracy as a literal “pathway to hell”, the FPI and other Islamist vigilantes have proven adept over the past decade at playing a particular kind of wedge politics shaped by Indonesia’s decentralised electoral system. It has seen them exercise increasing influence over government policy disproportionate to their size, in particular in regards to their key obsessions: pornography, ‘deviant’ sects and ‘Christianisation’. The irony that their existence is itself a product of Indonesia’s greater freedom of organisation is something that apparently escapes them.

So if they don’t want democracy, what do they want? Syaria law ala Aceh, or the global Caliphate touted by fellow Islamists such as Hizbut Tahrir? Neither. Rather the FPI advocate an essentially nationalist line: a return to the 1945 constitution. They claim Indonesia’s founding political document makes no mention of democracy, instead outlining a system of consultative consensus decision making in keeping with Islamic tradition.

In this the FPI has found ideological bedfellows amongst New Order apologists, including former generals. While having no interest in Islam, they do share an interest in rolling back any moves towards more liberal democracy or progressive social change. The linking thread is a preference for authoritarianism.

These views are far from extreme. President Yudhoyono’s Democrat party has called for ‘democratic downgrading’, including the ending of direct elections for regional heads. Presidential frontrunners such as former Special Forces commander and serial human rights violator, Prabowo Subianto has also expressed the view that Indonesian democracy is “excessive”. Others such as the National Awakening Party, perhaps unsettled by a growing trade union movement, have stated that freedom of organisation needs to be reined in. Indonesia’s democratic future is far less secure than many foreign commentators would suggest.

It’s perhaps then unsurprising that many political parties and elites have extended a hand to the FPI. Indonesia’s Minister of Home Affairs went so far as to call them a ‘national asset’ who should be ‘embraced’. Despite being deeply unpopular amongst the general public, political parties and elites have recognised their utility value in a situation where non-participation in elections has steadily increased. Some suggest that in 2014 it could be as high as 50%, reflective of a broader disillusionment with the substance of institutional democracy and daily revelations of endemic corruption.

Appealing to conservative Islamists and their sympathisers entails fairly minimal political concessions, such as adopting a hard-line stance against pornography, with the potential to garner votes from groups ideologically disinclined to participate. This is certainly an easier electoral path than, for example, developing coherent policies to tackle Indonesia’s economic anomaly of sustained economic growth coupled with rising poverty.


Dr Ian Wilson is a Lecturer at the School of Management and Governance and a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University. This is an excerpt from an ISEAS Perspective paper which can be found here.