A masked member of the Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia takes part in a rally in Makassar, South Sulawesi, November 1, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

The Indonesian government today ordered the disbanding of Hizbut Tahrir, a conservative Islamist group that supports the creation of a Sharia-based Islamic caliphate to replace the country’s pluralist democracy. The government sought to justify the ban on the basis that the organization’s activities were “against Pancasila and the soul of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia.” Pancasila, or “five principles,” is Indonesia’s official state philosophy.

The government’s action follows President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s issuance of a decree on July 12 that amended the country’s law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and enabled the government to fast-track the banning of groups it considers security threats. The decree stripped the 2013 Mass Organizations Law of a detailed set of procedures required before official bans could be imposed on such groups.

Today’s action was an apparent response to pressure from 14 Muslim organizations, including the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic mass organization, to ban Hizbut Tahrir for posing a “national security threat.” Within the government, there was a deepening concern about the possible destabilizing impact of increasingly influential Islamists propagating an intolerant strain of Sunni Islam.

Hizbut Tahrir has been banned in much of the Middle East and countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Russia, while its public activities have been restricted in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Hizbut Tahrir’s Indonesian branch has an estimated 40,000 registered members.

The decision to ban Hizbut Tahrir constitutes a troubling infringement of the rights of freedom of association and expression. If the organization or its members have broken the law, the response should be criminal prosecutions, not banning. International law ensures the right to form associations, and any limitations on activities must be based on law, strictly necessary, and the least restrictive possible. Banning an organization should be a last resort, and the organization should be able to contest the ban in court.

Banning any organization strictly on ideological grounds, including Pancasila, is a draconian action that undermines rights of freedom of association and expression that Indonesians have fought hard to establish since the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. The government’s move to ban Hizbut Tahrir only underscores the fragility of the rights and freedoms Indonesians have come to take for granted since Suharto’s fall.