Supporters of Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islam Defenders Front, confront police officers during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 18, 2020. Hundreds of protesters marched in Indonesia's capital on Friday to demand the release of the firebrand cleric w

Indonesia outlaws one of the world’s largest vigilante groups

Morals are the stock-in-trade of the Islamic Defenders Front, which is likely the largest vigilante group in Asia. They claim millions of followers — though 200,000 is a more reasonable estimate — and they seek to purify society through fear.

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Supporters of Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islam Defenders Front, confront police officers during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 18, 2020. 

Tatan Syuflana/AP 

The crusade started small: Smacking around merchants who dared to sell noodles during the fasting hours of Ramadan. Barging into dodgy karaoke clubs and smashing up the place.

Then the vigilantes of the Islamic Defenders Front graduated to bigger targets: An LGBTQ film festival. A church in a Muslim-majority village. Lady Gaga, whose concert in Indonesia was canceled after the group deemed her a “destroyer of morals” and threatened her fans with “chaos.”

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Morals are the stock-in-trade of the Islamic Defenders Front, which is likely the largest vigilante group in Asia. They claim millions of followers — though 200,000 is a more reasonable estimate — and they seek to purify society through fear.

Their modus operandi: mobbing their targets with a noisy throng, mostly young and male, all wearing white robes and many gripping wooden rods.

“And they will shout, ‘This is against Sharia! People who do not comply with Sharia, God will punish you!”

Jajang Jahroni, Indonesian scholar

“And they will shout, ‘This is against Sharia! People who do not comply with Sharia, God will punish you!”

So says Jajang Jahroni. He’s an Indonesian scholar who has studied the movement since its early days, when he saw the vigilantes dashing into the city after Friday prayers. Some would return with blood speckled on their robes.

“They’re into street justice, dark justice,” he said.

They don’t always hurt people, especially if their targets back down. Most people tend to do whatever a screaming rabble commands.

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“They’ll always come with a big number. Hundreds at least. There’s nothing you can do to stop them.”

Jajang Jahroni, Indonesian scholar

“They’ll always come with a big number. Hundreds at least,” Jahroni said. “There’s nothing you can do to stop them.”

That hasn’t stopped the Indonesian government from trying.

In the last week of 2020, the Islamic Defenders Front was outlawed. Its acolytes, no sticklers for obeying the law, have shrugged off the ban, insisting they’ll simply rename the group and start anew.

It was long assumed by many that a group this obnoxious would never last that long in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country — but also one where “moderate Islam” is something of a national brand.

Yet, the Islamic Defenders Front has chugged along for two decades now and are relevant as ever.

Most Indonesians are put off by puritanical mobs, Jahroni says. But the vigilantes don’t need majority support. They just need enough followers to scare their enemies into silence — causing enough Indonesians to feel that any public expression outside the bounds of Sharia law is better kept in the shadows.

The vigilantes force Indonesia to face a question vexing democracies around the world, including the United States.

To what degree should the state tolerate movements devoted to destroying tolerance itself?


The appeal of the Islamic Defenders Front isn’t readily obvious — especially to anyone who recoils from adrenaline-charged mobs. But the group, and its founder, are more complex than they first appear.

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Ian Wilson first encountered the group in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Fluent in Indonesian, he’d come to Aceh, the nation's westernmost province, to translate for foreign medical teams.

It was a ghastly scene, with waterlogged bodies strewn across the sand. Members of the front were there, volunteering to collect corpses and bless them with a proper Islamic burial. They were following their spiritual leader: Habib Rizieq, a goateed man wearing a skull cap and red rubber gloves to handle dead bodies.

“We got along quite well,” Wilson said. “He later invited me to his home in Jakarta.”

“We drank tea and talked,” he said. “He’s animated. He’s intense. He’s a charismatic figure with a sharp wit.”

Wilson, now a political lecturer with Australia’s Murdoch University, readily concedes that the Islamic Defenders Front is an “irritating and thuggish organization.”

But they’re much more than that, he says. Rizieq is a notorious figure in Indonesia: deplored by moderates, adored by his acolytes. He’s also quite adept at tapping into the everyday grievances of the working class.

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His speeches decry police who squeeze bribes from the poor. He castigates foreign corporations who build factories in Indonesia and pay crap wages.

“Rizieq gives a moral framing to the rapid socio-economic transformation that has left a lot of people by the wayside. He says, ‘These are the evils of immoral capitalism’ and offers a solution to the problem.”

Ian Wilson, Murdoch University 

“Rizieq gives a moral framing to the rapid socio-economic transformation that has left a lot of people by the wayside,” Wilson said. “He says, ‘These are the evils of immoral capitalism’ and offers a solution to the problem.”

“The answer,” he said, “is always more Islamic piety.”

The long-term goal of the Islamic Defenders Front is less democracy, more Sharia law.

“They’d like Indonesia to look more like the Middle East,” Jahroni said.

The imposition of Saudi Arabia-style strictures on public life would delight Rizieq. He also pushes a fringe interpretation of the Indonesian constitution, arguing that it doesn’t specifically insist the nation must be run as a democracy.

Over the years, Rizieq has gone in and out of jail over petty charges — all of which, he says, are attempts to suppress his righteous movement. He has faced judges for orchestrating “sweeps,” the nighttime raids against supposedly immoral establishments, and a variety of public order infractions.

In fact, Rizieq is in jail right now for summoning large crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic. And an especially dark cloud has hung over the cleric since early December, when his bodyguards challenged policemen surveilling Rizieq one night. There was a skirmish and a shootout that left six front members dead.

Despite all this scrutiny over the years, the Islamic Defenders Front has had major successes. Its biggest trophy to date: Jakarta’s former governor — best known as Ahok — who was dethroned after a smear campaign in 2017.

In fiery speeches, Rizieq said little about the governor’s policies, choosing instead to harp on his race (ethnic Chinese) and his religion (Christianity.) Under pressure from the front, police hit Ahok on flimsy charges of blaspheming Islam. It worked. The governor stepped down and went to prison.

In the eyes of many Indonesian politicians, Rizieq is a “terrorist.” In fact, the state’s justification for outlawing the group is that its members were involved in unspecified acts of terrorism.

Yet, Rizieq doesn’t advocate bombing civilians nor does he disavow the constitution.  He is waging a “moral revolution,” not an armed one.

“The fact that they’re annoying,” Wilson said, “isn’t really grounds, in a democratic country, to ban them. The point of any democracy is you have to live with groups you don’t like.”

An outright ban, he said, risks “feeding into a martyrdom complex that has fed Rizieq from the beginning.”

And martyrdom is sweet oxygen to the Islamic Defenders Front.