Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Jokowi’s bungled ban of Hizbut Tahrir

The proposed ban on HTI looks very much like an abuse of state power for political aims.

Protesters rally against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama ('Ahok') on 5 May 2017. HTI was one of the leaders of the anti-Ahok campaign. (Photo: Getty Images)
Protesters rally against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama ('Ahok') on 5 May 2017. HTI was one of the leaders of the anti-Ahok campaign. (Photo: Getty Images)
Published 17 Jul 2017 

On 13 July, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) issued a regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) which will allow the banning of the Islamist organisation Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). This follows the government’s announcement on 9 May that it intended to disband HTI on the grounds that its teachings conflicted with the constitution and state ideology of Pancasila, and that its activities were creating public unrest.  

The government’s actions have proven controversial and there are strong grounds for arguing that both decisions undermine Indonesian democracy and carry considerable political risk for Jokowi. The use of the Perppu, in particular, points to the government’s inept legal and political strategies behind the banning. 

Hizbut Tahrir has been present in Indonesia since the early 1980s. Initially a covert movement, it has operated above ground since 2000. It has grown rapidly over the past two decades and has branches in most of Indonesia’s provinces. It keeps its membership numbers secret, but has been regularly able to mobilise thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, to its rallies. 

The cornerstone of its teaching is the necessity to restore a global caliphate, after the last of the Ottoman caliphs was removed by Turkey in 1924. It regards democracy as un-Islamic and campaigns fervently but peacefully for sharia law implementation and the rejection of capitalism and secularism. 

The government’s May announcement that HTI was to be banned came as a surprise and was met with immediate scepticism by many commentators. There were several reasons for this. First, HTI’s pro-caliphate views had long been known and the organisation’s leaders were usually careful to avoid explicit rejection of the Indonesian state or Pancasila. The police claimed to have ‘abundant evidence’ that HTI had recently begun fomenting insurrection but media leaks about details of the police case referred only to speeches by a few local HTI officials. 

Second, HTI had no history of violence, unlike many other Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI). Critics asked why the government was not targeting FPI, for example, which had repeatedly been involved in vicious attacks on religious minorities. Moreover, only a couple of ex-HTI members had been implicated in terrorism, far less that the number of convicted jihadists with connections to major Islamic organisations like Muhammadiyah or the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

Third, the claim that HTI was creating social disturbances appeared contrived. In the month prior to the May announcement, Ansor, the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), staged protests against HTI meetings, persuading police to cancel the HTI events. Simmering tension between NU and HTI was nothing new, but NU’s physical confrontation of HTI was. Interviews with NU leaders suggest some level of coordination between NU’s youth wing, Ansor, and Jokowi government officials, seemingly to build a case for action against HTI. 

While the government claimed there were pressing security and legal reasons for banning HTI, the real reasons appear to be political. Since the massive Islamist mobilisation against the incumbent Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), in late 2016 and early 2017, resulting in his defeat in April, the Jokowi government has been scrambling to counter rising Islamist power while rallying ‘moderate’ Islamic support for the president. Counter measures have included the arrest and planned prosecution of numerous Islamist leaders on a variety of charges from sedition to disseminating pornography. 

HTI was one of four Islamist organisations that led the anti-Ahok campaign and the government probably regarded it as the easiest target. HTI’s caliphal doctrines could be readily cast as a threat to national security and the organisation lacked the large and militant membership of FPI. Lastly, HTI was not especially popular within the broader Islamic community, with NU in particular openly calling for its banning. By announcing a ban on HTI, the government signaled to other Islamist organisations its determination to push back against them.

The sudden issuing of the Perppu last week was unexpected, as the government had previously said it would prosecute the matter through the courts, in keeping with the law governing social organisations. Last week the line changed with the government argued existing laws were inadequate for a timely prosecution and that the president had to resort to a Perppu to address a legal vacuum as well as a threat to the nation. The Perppu can be used by the Internal Affairs and Justice ministers to withdraw the legal status of a social organisation, with the obvious target being HTI. The government's actions were sharply criticised by NGOs, legal experts and the media, as well as by many Muslim leaders, as arbitrary and unwarranted. 

The government’s justification for the Perppu is indeed unconvincing and points to both haste and poor planning. Why was it only now aware of shortcomings in the social organisation law? Should not such matters have been investigated prior to the May announcement of HTI’s dissolution? And where was the HTI threat that required such urgent action? The government has offered no good answers to these questions and its actions are better explained by the likely realisation that evidence against HTI may have been insufficient to win judicial approval of a ban. Indeed, Jokowi may be using the Perppu to maintain pressure on his Islamist foes.

All of this carries risks for Jokowi. HTI will appeal to the Constitutional Court and there appear to be grounds for arguing the government has not followed the Court’s own ruling on the process for banning social organisations. If the Perppu is overturned, Jokowi’s standing will be diminished and Islamist groups emboldened. 

There are reasons to doubt whether a ban on HTI would be effective. Its membership is disciplined and resourceful, having undergone a long process of induction and caderisation. Hizbut Tahrir also has experience, both in Indonesia and abroad, of operating underground. HTI activists could simply create new labels for their activities or have no organisation affiliation at all, while secretly working through informal networks to pursue HTI’s mission. 

Finally, there is the matter of whether a nation that proclaims itself as an exemplar of democracy should be seeking to proscribe an organisation without compelling evidence of wrongdoing or threat. If it is the case that individual HTI leaders have advocated seizure of power, then they can be prosecuted under existing laws without seeking to disband an entire organisation. The proposed ban on HTI looks very much like an abuse of state power for political aims.

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