JAKARTA, INDONESIA - Indonesia's foremost hard-line Islamist group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), has announced a Christmas Day boycott of Facebook and the Whatsapp instant messaging service, as well as a live protest at Facebook's Indonesia office in the near future.
They say Facebook — like other major social media outlets such as Twitter and Instagram — has blocked several FPI accounts, and that Facebook allows pro-LGBT and anti-Sharia pages to stay on its site. The group also plans to protest at Indonesia's Ministry of Communications and Information in the new year.
While the boycott is unlikely to make a major impact on Facebook, it underscores that FPI's official accounts are blocked on many major platforms, leading some to speculate the move was at the national government's request.
That's unlikely, said Ross Tapsell, who researches media in Southeast Asia at Australian National University.
"There is a misperception, both within FPI and outside of it, that the Indonesian government calls up social media companies like Facebook and Twitter and asks for certain pages to be taken down and these companies simply comply," he said. "That isn't how this works. Social media companies have their own codes of conduct and it is through fairly extensive and rigorous internal debates that these decisions are ultimately made."
He suggested that Facebook likely shut down FPI's pages, which have in the past engaged in hate speech and advocated for violence, for violating its terms and policies.
This is an ambiguous moment for the FPI, which has risen rapidly from a fringe group, founded in 1999 after the fall of Suharto, to a mainstream organization that swayed the Jakarta gubernatorial election.
In late 2016, the FPI organized mass protests in Jakarta against its Chinese Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, for allegedly insulting the Quran. The eventually triumphant candidate, Governor Anies Baswedan, openly allied with the FPI during his campaign.
Crackdown on Islamist groups
"On the issue of internal regulation, Twitter and Facebook have involved many social organizations from Indonesia to become their trusted flaggers [of problematic content], not only the government," said Damar Juniarto, a coordinator of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network. He suggested the decision to block FPI happened after numerous complaints from different sources.
"Various FPI members have posted videos of violence, bullying and harassing people who criticized them or their leader in 2017, and these videos would have been given as evidence for the need to ban them on Facebook," Tapsell said.
Facebook and Twitter could not be immediately reached for comment.
Beyond social media, other Indonesian hard-liners have been the target of crackdowns this year. In July, the government banned the international Islamist organization Hizbut Tahrir because it threatened the nation's pluralist state ideology, known as Pancasila. Hizbut Tahrir advocates for a global Islamic caliphate.
Today, FPI's leader, Habib Rizieq Shihab, is a fugitive in Saudi Arabia; he was charged shortly after the Jakarta election under the nation's pornography law for allegedly texting explicit photos with a woman who is not his wife. It is a far cry from late 2016, when he enthralled hundreds of thousands of Muslims who brought Jakarta to a grinding halt to attend the "peaceful actions" that Rizieq and FPI organized against the governor.
FPI also has had trouble expanding its brand beyond Java, like in West Kalimantan province in Borneo, where the group failed to hold a similar rally last summer.
Support for FPI increased from 15.6 percent to 23.6 percent between June 2016 and August 2017, according to a recent report from researchers Marcus Mietzner, Burhanuddin Muhtadi and Rizka Halida.
As the year draws to a close, FPI's agenda is once more trained on local and domestic actions, where it started as Indonesia's unofficial moral police. For instance, it has promised to raid establishments that make their staff wear Christmas hats. It remains to be seen whether FPI will return to influence the national political discourse in the new year, or whether the group's stature has peaked.