Ramadan this year was a trying time for the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a vigilante group known for its raids on restaurants, bars and other businesses deemed to be non-compliant with Islamic norms. Recent incidents have stirred up public anger over the group's activities, forcing the FPI to apologize.
Among those angry with the vigilantes are local residents of Kendal, a regency in Central Java. A female primary school teacher, Tri Munarti, died there on July 18th when a truck driven by FPI rioters ploughed into a motorcycle on which she was a passenger.
H Muryono, head of education in the district, said the death was a huge loss. "I have lost the best teacher of Kendal Regency," Tribunnews quoted him as saying.
Prominent Indonesians are calling for the FPI to be disbanded after Ramadan raids in Central Java sparked a riot, and an FPI vehicle speeding away from the melee struck and killed a woman.
The incident happened at midday, after FPI members launched a raid in the locality of Sukorejo. Area residents, some armed with clubs and pieces of wood, gathered to prevent it and a clash soon ensued.
As a convoy of FPI vehicles tried to flee the area, one struck the motorcycle the teacher was riding, killing her and injuring four other people. Enraged residents burned the vehicle, and local police evacuated FPI members from the area.
Hundreds of Kendal residents staged a protest rally July 23rd to mourn the death. Many carried posters with sentiments such as "I am a Muslim, but I am not FPI".
"We're demanding that FPI should be disbanded because they are being arrogant and vigilantes," co-ordinator Erwin Pasule shouted.
"The only way to stop FPI is through law enforcement," Kendal cleric Zainal Maturi told Khabar. "FPI must listen to the call from our government. Islam is teaching us to be respectful and to follow our leaders. As such, FPI should follow the command from the Indonesian government to stop their action as 'community police.'"
FPI on the defensive
On July 24th, FPI chairman Habib Rizieq Shihab publicly apologized to Tri Munarti's family in the presence of her husband Samsu Eko Julianto, who was driving the motorcycle when it was struck. He was also injured.
"We regret this happened and apologize for the loss and for those who are injured," Rizieq said. He pledged financial compensation for the family and promised that any FPI members involved in the violence in Kendal would be dismissed from the organisation and face legal charges.
But the apology failed to calm public outrage.
"I could never understand why Indonesia is so afraid of FPI. They are very aggressive and abusive. And they do not have appreciation or respect for any differences in the community. This organisation should be banned," said Sukmanto, a 26 year-old student from Kendal.
Religious authorities condemn raids
The public outcry is not confined to Kendal, however. Calls to rein in the FPI are coming from lawmakers, religious leaders, activists and regular citizens, who demand stricter law enforcement against vigilantes.
"We urge the government to disband the group, which engaged in numerous incidents of vandalism and showed deplorable attitude," Said Aqil Siradj, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), of the FPI.
"Their behaviour does not reflect Islamic teaching," he said in South Jakarta on July 28th.
Just prior to Ramadan, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and the NU called on all community groups to refrain from violent vice raids, and many Muslim groups pledged to do so.
Melanie Liemena Suharly, deputy speaker of the People's Consultative Council (MPR), said she was lobbying for leaders of the NU and Muhammadiyah to recommend President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) dissolve the organisation.
"I will propose to the Assembly leadership to immediately communicate between NU and Muhammadiyah to discuss the dissolution of FPI," she told Khabar. "There should be no human rights violations related to FPI."
Jaffar Hakim, an Islamic cleric in Kendal, told Khabar the government should not bother to debate FPI's legal status.
"The government has an authority to disband FPI regardless of its legal status, especially for their acts of anarchy in Kendal and other places. It is important to make sure this incident does not happen in the future," he said.
On July 23rd, the government issued two letters of reprimand to the FPI, warning it to stop activities that cause disturbances in society, including sweeping.
According to police, seven people have been detained in the Kendal unrest – four local residents and three FPI members.
Suspects "have been arrested, processed, and detained. We're just waiting for the results, and we hope that everyone sees this process, because this is the fasting month. Don't be a vigilante," National Police chief Timur Pradopo told reporters in Jakarta.
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