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Indonesia: Thousands of Muslims Stage Biggest Yet Protest Against Islamic Flag Burning

The Hizb ut-Tahrir group has tens of thousands of members in Indonesia [File: Tatan Syuflana/AP Photo]
Tatan Syuflana/AP Photo
JOHN HAYWARD

A huge protest march in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday brought thousands of Muslims to the streets waving black flags emblazoned with the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”).

The demonstrators were angry about the burning of a flag used by a banned Islamic supremacy organization last month because that flag also incorporated the shahada.

The Associated Press judged Friday’s demonstrations “the biggest of scattered protests” since the flag burning, which was widely denounced by Muslims as an act of blasphemy even though it was carried out by another Muslim group.

The flag in question was linked with Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a worldwide Islamic supremacist group with global “caliphate” ambitions and a fundamentalist philosophy similar to the Islamic State, although Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders insist they are a legitimate political party that interprets the concept of “jihad” non-violently.

The group has a habit of blaming Western nations for causing terrorism and is viewed as extreme even by nations that came up short of banning it outright. It has been banned by Muslim nations such as Indonesia and Pakistan on the grounds that it radicalizes youth and works to overthrow individual governments so a global Islamic caliphate can be established.

On October 22, a group of militant Islamic youth called Banser affiliated with Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, distributed a viral video that showed group members wearing the uniforms of a “civilian security unit” burning the Hizb ut-Tahrir flag at a rally. The video depicted rally attendees bursting into the Banser marching song as the HT flag caught fire.

Indonesians, Muslim organizations, and government officials swiftly criticized the video on a variety of grounds, including its deliberately provocative nature and the detail that the flag might not actually have belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir. The strongest and most widespread response was that no matter whose flag it was or what message the Banser youth intended to send by burning it, the flag incorporated the shahada so its destruction was an act of blasphemy.

Muslim groups have held protests ever since, frequently involving flags that display the Islamic creed. Some of these protests were organized by the same groups that persecuted (and ultimately managed to prosecute) the once-popular Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for blasphemy. Acts of blasphemy against any religion are technically illegal in Indonesia, although “prosecutions overwhelmingly target religious minorities,” as the Associated Press delicately put it on Friday.

The administration of President Joko Widodo faces increasing pressure from Muslim groups to take action against the flag burners, with a presidential election looming in April.

Much of the heat has been focused on the Indonesian security minister, who uses the single name Wiranto. Wiranto met with protest leaders on Friday and pointed out that his office has a great deal on its plate at the moment, as it is struggling to deal with a deadly plane crash from earlier this week, along with recent natural disasters.

The security minister said protests against the flag burning will not be banned by the government but called for calm and orderly demonstrations.

“They must not force their will, make people afraid, or disturb public order,” he said of the protesters. “Moreover, our nation is currently in mourning after a series of disasters and a plane crash. They should help create peace, even the international community gives a lot of sympathy, empathy, and assistance.”

“This kind of rally is just a waste of energy and is no longer relevant because religious leaders, ulema and the leaders of Muslim organizations have called for peace and for people to let the police carry out their investigation,” Wiranto added.

According to the Jakarta Post, three suspects have been identified in the flag burning incident. They presently face possible three-week jail sentences on charges of disrupting a public gathering, but evidently there are no plans to file blasphemy charges against them.

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