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The Islamic Defenders Front, better known for vigilante actions against gays, Christmas decorations and prostitution, has over the past decade and a half repurposed its militia into a force that's as adept at searching for victims buried under earthquake rubble and distributing aid as it is at inspiring fear. PALU, Indonesia--The flags hanging outside Anwar Ragaua's house have drawn warnings from police, but the wiry year-old vows he's not taking them down.
After all, the police weren't there to help when he was the sole fisherman in his village to survive the tsunami that inundated the Indonesian city of Palu at dusk on Sept. Nor was the government. Nor were the aid organizations that swept into the stricken region in remote central Sulawesi. Instead, the first people to offer him hope--and a new boat--were deployed by a hard-line Islamic group notorious for vigilante violence such as storming the offices of Playboy magazine, smashing up stores selling alcohol and attacking minority Muslim sects.
When the wind picks up, it's the Islamic Defenders Front's white-and-green flag that flutters outside Ragaua's house, alongside a much bigger black flag with white Arabic script. The words are a well-known declaration of Muslim faith; similar flags have become associated with violent extremists. Since its inception two decades ago, the front has pushed for Islamic law to govern the lives of Indonesia's million Muslims, aiming to correct what it sees as the errors of Indonesia's Constitution that established a secular state and religious freedom.
Though often dismissed as a fringe group, it has recently scored unexpected and stunning political victories--only partly due to the growth of orthodox Middle Eastern Islam in Indonesia. The group's success also can be traced to an effort over more than 10 years to repurpose its militia into a force that's as adept at helping the poor and searching for victims buried under earthquake rubble as it is at inspiring fear.
The front was formed in Jakarta, researchers say, by elements of Indonesia's military after the fall of dictator Suharto in as a tool for confronting pro-democracy activists and liberalism. Able to act with impunity, it became infamous for running protection rackets and violent vigilantism. It now has chapters in 23 of Indonesia's 34 provinces and a military-like command structure cascading down to village levels.