LAST month, after the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI) threatened to disrupt the finale of the Miss World beauty pageant, organisers were forced to move the venue to the predominantly Hindu island of Bali.
It was yet another example of the way the authorities have effectively condoned the activities of a group known to many as "preman berjubah", or thugs in white robes.
Clearly, the Indonesian state has been tolerating the organisation's activities for too long, harming Indonesia's reputation in the process.
Since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, the FPI has gained notoriety for acts of vigilantism and violence against religious minorities as well as entertainment centres deemed vice dens in Jakarta and other cities.
Civil society groups have demanded that the FPI be disbanded because of its acts of violence and intolerance. They have also invoked the Mass Organisation Law passed by the House of Representatives in July, which gives the government the authority to break up the group.
But the FPI remains untouched and not likely to be dissolved any time soon.
The authorities have charged several FPI members and leaders responsible for the violence in some of its operations. However, the organisation itself remains intact and operates almost with impunity.
The Mass Organisation Law has a clause that provides for the dissolution of an organisation implicated in acts of violence and other transgressions. But a detailed procedure has to be followed before such an organisation can be disbanded.
When the government was asked to disband the FPI after a violent incident in the Kendal regency, Central Java, Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi sought refuge in legalese, emphasising the long, complicated bureaucratic path that would have to be taken to ensure disbandment.
The government wants to avoid being seen as repressive as the Suharto regime, which introduced the precursor of the mass organisation law in 1985.
As part of the Muslim constituency, the FPI is included in the network of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), the highest authority on Islam. The latter pursues an agenda that includes supporting anti-pornography legislation, curbing the influence of pluralism, liberalism and gay lifestyles, and clamping down on heretical sects, including the Ahmadiyah movement.
Last month, at the FPI's 15th anniversary, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali and Social Affairs Minister Salim Segaf Al Jufri graced the celebration with praises for the grouping as an Islamic organisation.
Some Muslim leaders like Suryadharma and Salim Segaf, both from the Islamic United Development Party (PPP) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) respectively, have a soft spot for FPI. The police have also been lenient to the group. This can be seen in the way the police avoid acting swiftly against troublemakers during raids on churches and entertainment centres.
A WikiLeaks report based on leaked US diplomatic cables in September 2011 revealed that FPI leaders were close to top police officials, who even provided them with funds for their activities.
The FPI phenomenon has two serious implications for the country.
First, the organisation has used violence in their raids on entertainment centres, in harassing minorities and in closing down churches. But violence begets violence as more people organise themselves into mobs to confront the FPI during its "sweeping" operations.
During recent raids Kendal, local people attacked around 50 FPI members on hearing a pregnant woman had been killed by an FPI vehicle. Heavily outnumbered, the group sought sanctuary at a mosque before the police came to rescue them from the mob.
Earlier, in February 2012, a group of Dayaks, natives of Central Kalimantan, raided the Palangkaraya airport to block the visit of FPI leaders. FPI chief Habib Rizieq Shihab was on his way to launch a branch in the province. A skirmish was avoided. But FPI leaders had to return to Jakarta.
Second, failure to act against the group has made the state appear impotent. The function of the state is to protect its citizens and their rights against violence perpetrated by groups like the FPI. These rights are guaranteed by the Constitution, and it is the state's responsibility to ensure that they are upheld.
The group's harassment of religious minorities infringes on the right to freedom of religion. Their attacks on bars and restaurants where alcoholic drinks are served also trample on the rights of non-Muslims, who do not face any prohibition on drinking.
The right to freedom of association is important. But it must be tempered by the rights of citizens to be protected from violent groups. The authorities must also take cognisance of the fact that the activities of the likes of the FPI have undermined Indonesia's reputation as a moderate Muslim country with a high degree of tolerance.
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