As with most of the world, Indonesian politics has been consumed by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this has been partially upstaged and then intensified by the Nov. 10 return from Saudi Arabia of Islamist firebrand Muhammad Rizieq Shihab. His massive welcoming crowds, beginning at the airport, threaten to reform old alliances and may even create new ones.
Rizieq is the founder, and now sports the inflated title of Imam Besar (Great Imam), of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), a frequently violent radical organization that has sought to impose its own version of Islamic law usually by mob rule. It has attacked religious minorities, especially those it regards as deviant Muslims, churches, liquor stores and nightclubs. It’s also not above collecting extortion money on the side from threatened businesses. It has at times received support from some elements of the military and the police.
While he has intimidated businesses and media, affected political calculations, and could always generate news, Rizieq has still been largely on the fringes of Indonesian public life—someone whose crowds could be channeled, amplified or manipulated by those with more power. That began to change when he helped organize massive protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, generally known as Ahok. Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, was pragmatic, hardworking and popular, and appeared to be cruising to re-election over his chief rival Anies Baswedan.
But then Ahok was falsely accused of blasphemy after a manipulated video of one of his speeches was released on the internet. The FPI led much of the national campaign against him and organized a series of protests culminating in massive demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people in November and December 2016 and again in early 2017.
Subsequently, the political turmoil entangled the families of four former presidents, saw demonstrations by up to half a million people, widespread smears regarding religion and ethnicity and multiple police investigations of senior political and religious leaders. It culminated in May 2017 with Ahok’s imprisonment for two years for blasphemy.
In turn, and perhaps in retaliation, Rizieq was then himself investigated for blasphemy after reports that he had made denigrating remarks about the Holy Trinity and thus insulted Christians. He was then questioned concerning allegations that he had also insulted Indonesia’s state ideology of Pancasila. The police also interrogated him about whether he had slandered Sukarno, Indonesia’s revered first President and independence hero, which would be illegal. He was again summoned to answer accusations that he had mocked Indonesia’s newly released banknotes, accusing them of featuring Communist symbols. Finally, on May 30, 2017, he was charged under the pornography law for allegedly sending sexually explicit messages via WhatsApp to Firza Husein, who had herself been arrested on charges of treason for her role in organizing the mass demonstrations.
Faced with this prosecutorial tsunami, Rizieq, a graduate of Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University, then fled to that country, where he remained for three years. His lawyer claimed he was a guest of the government there, which was covering all his expenses because he was a descendent of Islam’s Prophet.
Despite this apparent disgrace, Rizieq retained influence at home. In June 2018, then Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto visited him in Mecca to win his endorsement and promised to allow Rizieq to return to Indonesia without charges should he win the Presidential election. Rizieq returned the favor, telling his supporters that they should vote for Prabowo, especially if they wanted homosexuality to be banned in the country. In February 2019, the chairman of the Habib Rizieq Shihab Center, Abdul Ramadan, declared, “[Rizieq] said that if Prabowo won, he would go home.”
But Prabowo lost the Presidential election to now President Joko Widodo, usually known as Jokowi.
The pornography charges against Rizieq have now been dropped, and despite the hopes of many that he would remain in Saudi Arabia or, at least, somewhere very far away, Rizieq, like a bad penny, has now returned and reestablished contacts with old friends and allies. One of the ones who came to greet him on his return was the current governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, whom Rizieq had supported in his campaign to defeat Ahok. Baswedan is probably considering a run for Indonesia’s presidency in 2024 and maybe thinks that having Rizieq’s support would be useful.
But there is another likely presidential candidate in the wings who is also interested in Rizieq. Former candidate Prabowo Subianto is now Indonesia’s defense minister, having been appointed by President Jokowi as a show of unity after the election. He too is widely thought to be considering a run for the top job in 2024, which would be his third attempt. Since he had courted and received Rizieq’s support in 2018, he is likely to do so again. Prabowo is also reported to be close to the still influential family of former dictator Soeharto, even though he divorced Soeharto’s daughter. On Nov. 14, there was a massive crowd at Rizieq’s daughter’s wedding and one of the distinguished guests was Titiek Soeharto, Prabowo’s former wife.
Since Baswedan and Prabowo would be running against each other, they would not only compete for Rizieq’s support, thus strengthening extremism in the country, but they would also have political incentives to undercut him should he instead tilt towards their rival. And, of course, there are many others, including those interested in the presidency for themselves, who would want to diminish, or use, Rizieq’s clout. The COVID crisis has already provided several opportunities for them to do either of these.
Tens of thousands of people had crammed the airport at his return, violating mask and social distance rules. On Nov. 14, he then held a massive wedding for his daughter, again flagrantly flouting pandemic restrictions. He was also supposed to have quarantined for 14 days upon his return, thus avoiding any meetings at all.
The authorities reprimanded him for these offenses and the Jakarta Public Order Agency ordered him to pay a 50 million rupiah fine. This fine would be very heavy for an average Indonesian, but for a person of Rizieq’s resources amounts to less than $4,000 USD and a slap on the wrist.
So, on Nov. 16, perhaps to emphasize that senior authorities were not simply going through the legal motions but actually meant business, the senior Cabinet Minister, the Coordinating Political, Legal and Human Rights Minister Mahfud, summarily removed two two-star generals, Nana Sudjana and Rudy Sufahradi Novianti, the police chiefs of Jakarta and West Java, two of the largest provinces in the entire country, for failing to enforce the safety protocols. Also of note is that the replacement for the Jakarta police chief is Inspector-General Muhammad Fadil Imran, who had led the initial investigation into the original sexting scandal that had led to Rizieq’s flight to Saudi Arabia.
This probably sent a message. In addition, authorities called current Jakarta Governor Baswedan in for questioning since he had also likely breached quarantine rules by visiting Rizieq only a few hours after his return.
In the light of Rizieq’s disruption, President Jokowi told a cabinet session that there was a threat to “democratic processes and unity, especially violence,” and police emphasized that they would enforce the ban on the so-called “212 reunion rally” planned for December 2020. This gathering had become an annual commemoration of the massive demonstrations against Ahok that had been held on Dec. 2, 2016 (hence “212”) and that had since developed a life of their own as a rallying point for Islamists.
Jokowi also warned the FPI that the police and even the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) had been instructed to take strict action against any illegal gatherings. The armed forces then began to take down banners glamorizing Rizieq on the grounds that they incited public disorder, actions that, if required, should have been left in the hands of the police..
Meanwhile, on Nov. 19, Indonesia’s COVID-19 task force reported that seven out of 15 people who had taken swab tests in Petamburan, Central Jakarta, were positive for the virus. The task force urged residents to report themselves if they had taken part in the parades that greeted Rizieq. Later Rizieq apologized but implied it was the crowd’s fault, and his lawyers hinted that he may have become infected.
There is a welter of new dynamics, but many of the old cast of characters are still on stage. Some are welcome—indeed Ahok is now back. In 2019, he was appointed by Jokowi to be the head of the state-owned energy company, Pertamina, Indonesia’s largest company and its most important state enterprise. If this is not enough to keep him occupied, he is also a candidate to oversee the construction of Indonesia’ s planned new capital city in Borneo. If this were to happen, he might once again become Governor of Indonesia’s capital city.
But, unfortunately, despite these changes, Rizieq could once again be roiling Indonesian politics and bolstering Islamist extremism for several years yet.