Webinar on “The Islamic Defenders Front and Political Polarization in Indonesia”

In this webinar, Dr Quinton Temby discussed the role of social media in heightening online polarization between government and opposition activists following the return of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab to Indonesia, and the prospects for Islamic populism in Indonesia.


Monday, 21 December 2020 – ISEAS Visiting Fellow Dr Quinton Temby this morning spoke at a webinar on the topic of “The Islamic Defenders Front and Political Polarization in Indonesia”. This webinar was organised by the Media, Technology and Society Programme and moderated by Dr Norshahril Saat.

Dr Quinton Temby
Dr Quinton Temby examined how the FPI sought to establish support through social media during the pandemic times. Dr Norshahril Saat moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Temby analysed the rise of Islamic populism following the return from self-exile of Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab in Saudi Arabia to Indonesia in November 2020. In light of the restriction of physical mobilization due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Temby suggested that Twitter has become a flourishing arena for hashtag battles between different actors seeking to control the Islamic populist narrative. By analysing Twitter hashtags and other platforms, Dr Temby examined how the FPI sought to establish support through social media during the pandemic times, and the implications of the group’s growing online presence as well as their relations with the governmental authorities.

Dr Temby described the messages posted by the FPI as ambivalent and contradictory, oscillating between reconciliatory and hate speeches. On one hand, the FPI has put out reconciliatory statements calling for the possibility for reconciling with the government. On the other hand, the recent killings of several FPI members also accumulated much grievances for the FPI, which contributed to spreading hate speeches, promoting violence and jihad among the online community. Despite the immense political and security threat that the FPI posed to the Indonesia society, Temby stressed that it would be politically and intellectually amiss to label the FPI as a gateway to terrorism in the same breath with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Notwithstanding their growing online engagement, Dr Temby suggested that the challenge of organising physical rallies and other events during these pandemic times meant the loss of FPI’s strongest card in provoking threat to the state. Nevertheless, Dr Temby said that the FPI’s potential in provoking threat to the society should not be underestimated, and a closer analysis of their social media engagements could illuminate their opinion and impression of their ‘enemies’.

Dr Temby highlighted that the FPI has recently been implicated in arousing anti-Chinese sentiments especially in light of the growing Chinese influence-power in Southeast Asia. He said that FPI has viewed China as a communist power. Drawing from an SMRC November 2020 national survey, Dr Temby said while the FPI is not considered overwhelmingly popular, the group’s level of popularity and outreach are considered rather laudable, standing at 43% likeability rate, comparable with other national political figures who are in good standing in running for the 2024 Indonesia presidency.

In conclusion, Dr Temby emphasised that the coming months following Rizieq Shihab’s return will be important in determining the fate of Indonesia’s democracy. Foregrounding the role that social media play in populist success will help to shed light on the how and why of the prospects for Islamic populism in Indonesia.

The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer session. The online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of issues which include the changes in Rizieq Shihab’s strategy for the FPI, outlook and methods over the years; the validity and reliability of the SMRC survey findings; the recent meeting between the Jakarta governor and Rizieq Shihab; the extent of FPI’s access to weapons; and the likelihood of the government’s ban on the FPI.

Over 70 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)