When disaster hits, Indonesia's Islamists are first to help
PALU, Indonesia – The two flags hanging outside Anwar Ragaua's house have gotten him police warnings but the wiry 50-year-old vows he's not taking them down.
After all, the police weren't there to help when he was the only fisherman in his village to survive the tsunami that crashed into the Indonesian city of Palu on Sept. 28. Nor was the government. Nor were the aid organizations that swept into the stricken city.
Instead, when Ragaua felt abandoned, the people to offer him a glimmer of hope — a new boat — were from the Islamic Defenders Front, a group with a notorious past that's included smashing up stores selling alcohol and attacking minority Muslim sects.
So it's the front's white-and-green flag that flutters outside Ragaua's house alongside a black banner with white Arabic script. The words are a well-known declaration of Muslim faith, but similar flags have become associated with violent extremists.
Police have visited several times, suspicious he may be spreading radicalism, but Ragaua is unfazed and eager to show his support for the group getting him back on his feet.
The Islamic Defenders Front has long pushed for Islamic not secular law to govern the lives of Indonesia's 230 million Muslims. It sees itself as the enforcer of that vision. Yet over the past 15 years it has also repurposed its militia into a force that's as adept at searching for earthquake victims as it is at inspiring fear.
In the process it has become an influential player in the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Besides the Palu earthquake and tsunami that killed 4,000 people, last year saw a series of earthquakes ravage Lombok and a tsunami wreak havoc on the Sunda Strait coastlines of Java and Sumatra.
The front was there at each disaster, searching for victims, distributing aid and building temporary housing. In addition, its regular charitable activities are a lifeline for urban poor.
The turning point for the organization was its humanitarian response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 100,000 people in Indonesia's Aceh, said Maman Suryadi Abdurrahman, head of the front's militia.
Even in Aceh, one of Indonesia's most conservative provinces, they weren't welcome, Abdurrahman said, but they won over Acehnese by recovering and burying thousands of bodies.
"We've changed the ways of our demonstrations to be more persuasive and peaceful," he said.
Reports of intimidation still emerge as the group takes on what it calls "community diseases." The front says its activities are part of an Islamic duty to prevent immorality and that communities often ask for its help when authorities don't take action.
Indonesia is a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, and its central government has been accused of neglecting the needs of remote regions far from the center of political and economic power. For places such as Palu, which has a bloody history of sectarian violence, that has provided an opening for hard-liners and their message that religion, not government is the answer.
While the 350 tons of aid the front says it provided in Palu is a fraction of what eventually poured into the region, its delivery was rapid and grassroots.
As officials struggled to get a handle on what had happened, truckloads of supplies had already been dispatched by a nearby front chapter.
The militia's search and rescue team was the first to scour two neighborhoods swallowed by soil liquefaction, recovering bodies before the government search and rescue agency turned up.
The government's response to images of those rescuers at work was ham-fisted, with the Information Ministry calling them a hoax. It seemed to forget that the National Search and Rescue Agency has provided training to front members.
"It is not only the bureaucracy that slows down the government's response, but rather sincerity," Abdurrahman said.
The front was formed, researchers say, by elements of the military after the 1998 fall of dictator Suharto as a tool for attacking liberal trends in a country newly embracing democracy.
It became infamous for running protection rackets and attacks on bars and other vigilantism. Researchers have estimated membership in the tens of thousands to several hundred thousand.
Crucially for its survival, it avoids a direct confrontation with Indonesia's civil law-based constitution. Walking a fine line, it wants Islamic law only to apply to citizens who are Muslim.
"We want an Islamist country, not an Islamic state," Abdurrahman said.
Nevertheless, there have been calls for the government to not renew the front's registration on the grounds that it is a radical organization.
Interior Ministry spokesman Bahtiar stopped short of saying the government would do so, but said by law organizations involved in social or humanitarian work are not supposed to be overtly political.
Ragaua was skeptical when three months after the tsunami two men from the front showed up at his house and offered new fishing boats to him and other men.
"At first, I did not believe it," he said.
A day later, the men came back and ordered several boats from a boat maker, paying in cash.
"I almost cried," Ragaua said. "I wanted to bow down in gratitude."