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 rather than secular law to govern Indonesia’s 230 million Muslims. It sees itself as the enforcer of that vision. Yet over the past 15 years it has also re-purposed 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 housing. In addition, its 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 how our demonstrations to be more persuasive and peaceful,” he said.
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 the 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.