Soldiers walk past a burned Ahmadiyah mosque in Cisalada, West Java province, which hundreds of Muslims burned along with five other houses on October 2, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

Indonesia’s Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi finally spoke out on October 25 about one of the country’s most violent militant Islamist organizations, the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI). But rather than condemn the FPI’s 15-year-record of bigotry and criminality, Fauzi praised the group as a potential “national asset.”

An Indonesian lawmaker’s suggestion that Fauzi spoke while “disoriented” might have been unfair. But his views indicate a willful ignorance of the FPI’s long record of justifying its acts of violence, calling most non-Muslims “infidels,” and Muslims who do not adhere to Sunni orthodoxy “blasphemers.” 

Fauzi doesn’t find that problematic, recommending that local governments enlist the FPI for assistance in “community development programs.” It’s not clear which “community” Fauzi wants the FPI to help develop. The FPI and kindred groups are implicated in multiple serious acts of harassment, intimidation, threats and increasingly, mob violence against religious minorities, including several Christian groups, native faith congregations, Shia and the Ahmadiyah. The FPI’s weaponry of choice– clubs, machetes and swords – doesn’t lend itself to effective community outreach.

Fauzi’s embrace of the FPI shouldn’t come as a surprise. Last year he announced that the Indonesian government would issue anew ministerial decreethat interprets human rights based on  local “religious and cultural values,“ a big backtrack on its commitments to universal human rights. But Fauzi is only the latest senior Indonesian official to betray their obligations to enforce the rule of law and uphold constitutional protections for religious freedom. On August 22, Indonesia’s religious affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali, made the keynote speech at the FPI’s annual congress in Jakarta.

The fact that both men remain in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government highlights his failure to confront the FPI and other agents of rising religious intolerance and to take a zero-tolerance approach to officials who endorse discrimination and bigotry. If President Yudhoyono wants to demonstrate he’s serious about defending religious freedom, he can start by sacking Fauzi and Ali and replacing them with ministers willing to confront, rather than coddle, Indonesia’s forces of religious intolerance.