World News

Opposition grows to Indonesia's hardline FPI Islamists

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian lawmakers have called on the government to disband a vigilante Islamist group known for smashing bars and attacking transvestites, but the militants on Wednesday said their critics were part of a liberal conspiracy.

The controversy highlights the problem Indonesia’s government faces in balancing the desires of an increasingly affluent population with its need to not be seen restricting Islamic organisations in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

The Islamic Defenders Front -- known locally as the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) -- attracts limited support in moderate, majority Muslim Indonesia, but fear of being seen as defending vice means politicians and police often turn a blind eye to their attacks on targets, such as transvestites, which are deemed un-Islamic.

An attack on a meeting of legislators accused by the fringe group of being Communists has prompted calls by a group of legislators for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to shut it down.

“We want law and order so our democracy can be protected. We need the law to be applied without discrimination so the human rights of minority groups can be protected and fulfilled,” Eva Kusuma Sundari, a lawmaker with opposition party PDI-P, told Reuters by phone. “Thuggery must be eliminated in Indonesia.”

The FPI, whose members often wear long white robes, white skullcaps and arm themselves with bamboo poles, made international headlines in 2008 when supporters were filmed beating people demonstrating in support of religious pluralism.

An online petition calling for FPI to be dismantled has now attracted 26,000 signatures and a Facebook group called “Disband FPI” has 46,918 members. But pluralist group The Wahid Institute said the government has ignored their calls to disband FPI despite its long list of violence.

Indonesian newspapers have been flooded with angry letters to the editor after the FPI on Monday called for the implementation of Sharia law in the Jakarta satellite suburb of Bekasi to stop what it described as “Christianisation”.

Endang Suharyadi, the spokesman for Bekasi administration, said the local council would consider the FPI’s suggestions “if they are for the greater good and do not challenge other laws”.

Investors are watching for signs that growing Islamisation in the provinces could make the country less tolerant or even lead to violence. Only one province, Aceh, currently has Sharia law.

On Wednesday, the Islamic Community Forum -- an umbrella group of hardline organisations that counts FPI among its members -- said critics of FPI were part of a conspiracy involving Communists and drug lords opposed to their anti-drugs stance.

“Based on the facts that we have collected, it’s clear there is a conspiracy among secularists, pluralists and liberalists, or SEPILIS,” said the group’s spokesman, Muhammad Al Khaththath, creating an acronym that sounds like the Indonesian for syphilis. (Editing by Neil Chatterjee)