Indonesia’s move towards banning Hizbut Tahrir

The Indonesian government recently stated they will move towards banning Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Wiranto announced the decision on Monday during a ministerial meeting examining mass movements and organizations in the country amid concern about the growing public presence of radical Islamist groups (of which HTI are but one of many).

I have noticed a few reports that the government has actually banned the organised. These reports are false. While the government can initiate the banning process, the decision is up to the courts (given recent protest actions, can you imagine the protests movements that will erupt around this move? They have already announced a huge protest in response).

Here’s what Wiranto told reporters:

“The President has instructed us to review all mass organizations to identify those with values that contradict Pancasila or the unity of the state. […] As a legally operating organization, the HTI has no positive role in achieving the national goal,” 

“HTI has also promoted values that contradict Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution. The activities of the group have also collided with the public, thus poses a threat to the unity of the republic [of Indonesia]. For this reason, the government has decided to ban the HTI,” he said.

Why HTI?

On one hand, the move seems excessive and contradictory, considering senior members of the police, military and government maintain close relations to other hardline Islamist groups who appear at odds with the values of the Pancasila and the Indonesian state. Yet there has been concerns that HT have been secret backers/organizers for IS in the past. At least in Tunisia (I cannot find a link to the article but will provide one later). Hizbut Tahirir however have publicly insisted that “the alleged caliphate pronounced by ISIS is Islamically illegitimate.”

So banning HTI in the context of countering radical ideologies and groups is one thing, but banning it for being against the Pancasila ideology is another. And why HTI, when there are a wide range of Islamist organisations advocating anti Pancasila ideologies, and promoting the implementation of Khalifa?

And if HTI aren’t the only ones advocating for Islamisation, why the focus on them for a ban, and why do they stand out in the wider context of organised Islamism* in Indonesia?

HTI rally, image from Tribune News
HTI rally, image from Tribune News


Masdar Hilmy’s study of Islamism and democracy in Indonesia found that Islamist presence, discourse and social manifestations in post-New Order Indonesia are as “wide ranging as Islamism itself.” [1] As Hilmy explains, in relation to democracy, Indonesian Islamism falls into two identifiable streams of thought:

“The first … is represented by groups that operate outside the formal political system. These groups reject democracy and do not participate in formal party politics, but are politically active, if only informally. This [is] a utopian variant of Islamism [in Indonesia] … At a rhetorical level, their reason for not immersing themselves in the political party system has to do with the struggle to maintain the purity of their faith in fulfilling the holy duty of “commanding good and forbidding wrong.” [2]

At a practical level however, the attitude of the state towards each group has a lot to do with strategic choices.

The Front Pembela Islam (FPI) and the Forum Jihad Islam (FJI) are placed into this category by Hilmy, as well as other Islamist groups like Hibut Tahrir (HTI) and Majelis Mujahideen Indonesia (Indonesian Mujahideen Council – MMI).

A second category comprises those that operate from within the system to achieve political change. These groups accept procedural democracy and are described as meliorist variants of Islamism. Hilmy’s study identifies these groups as being primarily represented by the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party – PKS), an Indonesian political party.[3]

For the groups associated with both categories, the idea of power is of primary importance, as is the idea that Islam should be actualized in the public sphere. However, the way these groups go about this is very different, and the strategic choices violent ormas like the FPI and FUI have made reflect their social, economic and political objectives more than their rhetorical objective to maintain the purity of the faith of Islam.

Other issues

In the past, calls for the banning of other Islamist groups have been met with two general responses from the Indonesian state: A) this would be unconstitutional (and reminiscent of New Order authoritarianism), and B) that hard-line Islamists in Indonesia should be able to continue to channel their “symbolic” voice through “legitimate” and “constructive” public agendas so that they are not drawn to terrorist organisations.[4] Why have these attitudes towards the group suddenly changed?

Internationally, other countries that have banned HT include Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, most of the rest of the Middle East except for the UAE, Lebanon and Yemen. It is also banned in Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and central Asian dictatorships). That would put Indonesia in some fairly undemocratic company.

I doubt that a ban of  HTI would be useful. Like past calls for the banning of the organisation in Australia, it might just represent a political smokescreen intending to distract from other issues – like government figures cavorting with other hardline, and violent, groups during their election campaigns.

Unlike the FPI (and the FUI and many others), HTI have not engaged in widespread acts of violence. They appeal to a relatively small section of the population who reject democracy and the Pancasila. But do they actually pose a threat to the state? Could the banning of HTI force them underground leaving them vulnerable to targeting by terrorist organisations?


*Islamist is a problematic term, yes, but insofar as HTI and others are advocating for the Islamisation of society (or even the khalifa-isation – is that even a word?), the term will have to do for now.

1] Masdar Hilmy, Islamism and Democracy in Indonesia: Piety and Pragmatism (Singapore, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), 153.

2] Ibid.

3] Ibid 83.

4] Panggabean et al., Policing Religious Conflicts in Indonesia, 58. See also Damayanti, Ninin.“Kita butuh preman,” Tempo News, February 21, 2009, accessed September 2, 2016


Despite uncertainty, Indonesians remain hopeful

One of a series of articles I wrote in the lead-up to Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election for The Kashmir Walla Magazine. Published July 18, 2014

Indonesia's Election Commission (KPU). Image
Indonesia’s Election Commission (Komisi Pilihan Umum, KPU). Image

“We Indonesians believe that no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate” – 1998 Democracy Activist (active in recent campaigning, who decided here to remain unnamed)

Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy with 187 million voters including 67 million first-time voters, voted last Wednesday July 12 for their next President. By the time the exit-polls had been counted, it felt like the nation exhaled momentarily. But that relief has been short-lived.

Although the official results of Indonesia’s presidential election yesterday will not be known until July 22, both candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, now have claimed victory based on exit polling and quick counts. As a result, political tensions in Jakarta are rising, and Indonesians are growing increasingly anxious as to what this means for Indonesia’s democracy.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today urged the election chief to ensure a transparent vote count following the disputed presidential poll, after both sides raised fears the other may party may tamper with the ballots. And this is not without reason.

Indonesia is one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries, and the country’s political elite is part of a very intertwined network of power and privilidge. Even though Indonesia made the transition from dictatorship to direct presidential elections a decade ago after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, Indonesia is still ranked 114th among 177 on a 2013 Transparency International Survey, with the nation’s judiciary, police and parliament ranked among the least trustworthy institutions.

Although the election was violence-free, a result perceived as questionable by either side still risks major public protests. Speaking ahead of the election, the army chief of staff General Budiman had already said the potential for conflict between supporters of Prabowo and Jokowi was “high,” as the Jakarta Post reported on its website July 7. This is a particular risk given the very vast differences between the two candidates and their respective supporters: Jokowi is the “man of the people” candidate, from humble beginnings and without ties to the political elite, whilst Prabowo is a former military general and the former son-in-law of Suharto alleged to have ordered the abduction of democracy activists before the Suharto’s downfall. 

At a rally for Gaza yesterday Prabowo told journalists “there are reports that some election boxes have been stolen, our witnesses are being intimidated”. In making statements like these, it appears the former military man will not go quietly.

The quick counts give Jokowi a lead of around 8 million votes, which is a margin of about 4 percentage points. And it is this slim margin that has given rise to growing tension.

Fears of tension and potential violence by analysts are not just about the close margin, but more about what the some candidate’s supporters are capable of, in particular, Prabowo. Some analysts have expressed concern that with his history, his ties to military, citizen militia groups, and extensive and powerful networks across the country that he might try to bully the election commission or engage in violent protest.

But despite all the public discussion and debate about the potential for unrest, many Indonesians I have spoken to over the past week, from street merchants to members of Indonesia’s parliament, are quietly optimistic. This is in contrast to the many foreign observers.

For ordinary Indonesians, perhaps that comes with the experience of watching the country go through so much turmoil and change over the past 16 years. As one Indonesian who was active in student protests during the Suharto era told me, “we Indonesians believe that, no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate”.

Whilst alert to the all possibilities of what could happen over the next two weeks, it appears many Indonesians hope that the candidates and their supporters will accept and honour the results of the election, and that when the final results are revealed on July 22, the wheels of Indonesian democracy will keep turning.