Between persecution and prosecution: vigilantes, the state and the politics of offence

Between persecution and prosecution: vigilantes, the state and the politics of offence

Indonesia has had a tumultuous year dealing with a divisive election and massive protests against Jakarta’s former governor, led by the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI). Things finally appeared to calm down last month, until the police charged FPI’s firebrand leader, (link is external) Rizieq Shihab, in a pornography case. Since then, a series of incidents involving intimidation of FPI critics has renewed public outcry about aggression by hard-line religious groups. This time, at the centre of the storm is no loud-mouthed politician. It is a 15-year-old boy.

A video that went viral (link is external) last week shows the teenager, accused of posting offensive material about Rizieq on his Facebook page, surrounded by several men claiming affiliation with the FPI. As the mob coerces him into reading an apology, the teen is repeatedly told that other offenders have suffered a much worse fate. “We, at the FPI still follow procedure but people can’t contain themselves if their leader is insulted.” As if to demonstrate, two men strike the teenager while the crowd breaks into raucous laughter.

Data compiled by free-speech advocacy network SAFEnet (link is external) shows that the harassment of the Jakarta-based teenager is part of a much broader pattern of “persecution” by the FPI. Since January 2017, at least 59 people have been subjected to similar intimidation after criticising the organisation on various social media platforms. Out of recorded cases, 34 took place in May, after the police named Rizieq a potential suspect. Initially, most incidents occurred in Jakarta and West Java but have since spread to other parts of the country.

Observers have rightly noted the “organised” nature (link is external) of this intimidation campaign by the FPI. After successfully leading the rallies to “defend Islam” in Jakarta in late 2016, the previously fringe organisation was openly courted by mainstream Muslim politicians. (link is external) Presumably, preventing public ridicule of Rizieq’s alleged sex chats (link is external) seeks to protect this hard-won social capital that could prove useful during the local and national elections looming in 2018 and 2019. However, two aspects of these recent events can explain how their significance goes beyond the narrow political interests of any single organisation and why this mode of intimidation is likely to recur.

First, FPI’s recent campaign builds on a tried-and-tested template of indignant mob action to regulate social behaviour. As a general phenomenon, where mobs either demand enforcement of the law to their satisfaction or directly punish a range of alleged transgressions, vigilantism is rampant (link is external) in Indonesia. As a self-professed vigilante organisation, the FPI also has a long history of conducting raids (link is external) against a host of “immoral” activities. Yet, the specific mode of intimidation observed in the recent set of cases against individuals accused of offending religious leaders is neither unique to the FPI nor to its hard-line ideological agenda.

Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia, also conducts online monitoring (link is external) as part of an agreement with the National Police. (link is external) Over the past year, members of NU’s youth militia, Banser, have identified and “managed” several individuals accused of posting derogatory comments about NU religious leaders (kiyai).

In November 2016, a housewife from Serpong, on the outskirts of Jakarta, was accused of insulting Kiyai Maimoen. (link is external) She used crude words to dismiss his suggestion that Ahok’s apology was sufficient to put the blasphemy matter to rest. Following a visit by Banser members, she was driven to Central Java, where she apologised to Maimoen in person. A Jakarta resident who ridiculed a tweet by Mustofa Bisri (commonly known as Gus Mus) was met with a similar response. (link is external) In January, NU’s cyber team tracked offensive comments about the organisation’s leader, Said Aqil Siradj. A Jember man accused of causing the offence issued a public apology (link is external) in a press conference arranged by the local Banser chapter. Most recently, a Jakarta man refused to retract his allegedly offensive comments about Kiyai Lutfi Yahya. Following a visit by local Banser personnel, he promptly signed a statement of apology (link is external) and posted it on his social media page.

Members of Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organisation, Muhammadiyah, have also taken a similar course. Last month, the organisation’s youth wing in Sidoarjo, East Java, took issue with the online comments of a local man accused of insulting two former leaders, Din Syamsuddin and Amien Rais. The accused was asked for “clarification” (link is external) at the local police station, where he signed a written apology.

There are no reports of NU or Muhammadiyah members engaging in the kind of violence seen in the video of the Jakarta teen. The scale of their efforts is also much smaller than FPI’s recent campaign. But the general mode of response to a perceived offense is similar: the accused offender is reported through a dedicated social media account; the offensive post is circulated until the accused is tracked down; a group claiming affiliation with the offended organisation visits the accused and obtains an apology.

It is worth noting that there is no attempt to conduct these proceedings in secrecy. Instead, the organisation’s visit and the apology from the accused offender are highly publicised affairs, with photographs and videos widely circulated on social media. Creating a public spectacle not only punishes the individual accused of an offence, but also serves to forewarn others to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Second, despite the recent arrests (link is external) and disciplinary action (link is external) against local police heads, the Indonesian state systematically encourages this mode of “offence” management. Recent incidents involving the FPI prompted several observers and victims to lament the “state’s absence”. (link is external) Ironically, however, state officials have not only been present in most of the recorded cases, but have actively facilitated written apologies from the accused.

In the case of the Jakarta teenager, the neighbourhood head was given advance notice by the FPI and the entire session (link is external) took place in his office. When a Tangerang woman was accused of insulting Rizieq, the local police chief called her in for questioning and negotiated an apology in his office. (link is external) According to a doctor from Solok, West Sumatra, who faced relentless harassment by FPI members until she fled to Jakarta, the police remained in close contact with her throughout her ordeal. An intelligence officer first warned her (link is external) about the impending visit from FPI. The subdistrict police chief facilitated her apology and signed on as a witness. The district police chief, who was eventually removed from her post for her role in the case, also met with the doctor several times.

What explains the relatively uniform state response to these incidents, at varying times and in different places? Two mutually reinforcing dynamics are at play. First, there are strong institutional incentives for formal law-enforcement officials to push for semi-formal mediation of social disputes. The police are generally under pressure to de-clog the already overwhelmed criminal justice system. When faced with a mob, these bureaucratic concerns are compounded by the need to thwart potentially embarrassing violent confrontation through negotiation.

As a result, junior police officers are required to engage in “problem-solving (link is external)” with communities to resolve disputes amicably (secara kekeluargaan) through dialogue (musyawarah). Typically, this involves holding a mediation session in conjunction with other government officials. The accused signs a letter admitting guilt and promising not to repeat the offence. The complainant also signs a letter accepting any compensation that is negotiated in the process and promising not to press legal charges. All officials co-sign the stamped letters and the case is considered resolved.

This arbitration is mostly used for resolving disputes involving individuals, such as petty theft, adultery, assault and traffic accidents. But it is also becoming the routine method for settling religious disputes (link is external) where one party is either an individual or a minority with considerably less leverage than the other. In cases where one side is represented by a mob, state officials explicitly cite (link is external) the threat of violence to initiate mediation. In dealing with recent cases of intimidation by the FPI, the local police seem to have broadly followed this rather standard procedure.

Second, strict legislation to control online defamation in general and religious offence, in particular, creates equally strong incentives for the accused to agree to semi-formal mediation. Consider the alternatives. Even if an individual is prepared to risk mob violence and refuses mediation, she would face a lengthy legal investigation that is highly likely to result in an arraignment. According to data gathered by SafeNET (link is external), between 2008 and 2009, 79 cases were filed with the police, out of which 67 individuals were formally charged.

To make matters worse, the same mob that was previously pressuring the accused for an apology would now mobilise to “guard” (kawal) the legal process (link is external) to ensure a satisfactorily hefty sentence is doled out. Given widespread concerns about susceptibility of the courts to this kind of pressure, the odds of a conviction are high. At the same time, the offended organisation is likely to lean on the accused’s employers and neighbours to elicit social sanction. Given these options, it is not difficult to see why an accused individual would rather resign herself to the outcome of an unfair mediation after persecution, than risk prosecution by the state.

There is no denying FPI’s recent campaign is designed to protect its organisational interests. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that other, more moderate organisations have also engaged in similar efforts. Collectively, these efforts represent the latest skirmish in a much wider contest over boundaries of religious offence in Indonesia. The goal is not to eliminate offenders but to publically cow them into submission. Vigilante action is proving to be an effective tactic, even for mainstream organisations, because it allows them to leverage the coercive capacity of the Indonesian state to achieve their ends.


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