Cleric’s Homecoming Spells Trouble for Indonesia

Commentary by Zachary Abuza

2020-11-11
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201111_ID_Rizieq_1000.jpg Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, the leader of Indonesian Islamic Defenders’ Front, is greeted by supporters in Tanah Abang, Jakarta, Nov. 10, 2020.
Reuters

Several thousand supporters thronged to Jakarta’s main international airport to greet the firebrand cleric, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, as he returned home this week after three years of self-imposed exiled in Saudi Arabia. The 55-year-old leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) had stayed in the kingdom after Indonesian authorities levied pornography and adultery charges against him in 2017.

He could have come home in 2018, when those criminal charges were dropped, but he did not. Rizieq has returned to Indonesia at this time because he sees a political opening. His homecoming augurs poorly for the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Indonesia already is beset by economic, political, and public health crises, which, many fear, the government is unable to handle.

FPI, the organization which Rizieq founded, is the largest Islamist “anti-vice organization” in the country. Created after the regime of President Suharto fell in 1998, the FPI gained notoriety for destroying bars and brothels through “sweeps” carried out by its white-robed members. The group portrays itself as a guardian and enforcer of “morality” but often has acted more like a protection racket.

The FPI is committed to implementing sharia law nationwide, and advocates for this goal both through legal as well as extralegal means – including harassment, intimidation and limited violence.

The FPI is not a political party but it does endorse candidates. In 2014 and 2019, it backed Prabowo Subianto, the former army general and son-in-law of the late Suharto in presidential contests. Politicians court the FPI because it is large and its members can be quickly mobilized.

The group has an estimated 200,000 members, but owing to Rizieq’s reputation and its nationwide clout, it can call on the support of up to twice that number from smaller, locally based anti-vice organizations.

The FPI was one of the lead organizers of the so-called 212 movement, which brought down the ethnic Chinese, Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as “Ahok”).

Previously, Rizieq had issued fatwas against the Liberal Islam Network, forcing many of its leaders into exile or hiding.

Causes for worry

There are five reasons to be concerned about Rizieq’s return at this sensitive time.

First, the FPI and other anti-vice organizations scattered across the Indonesian archipelago are not terrorist organizations, per se. But groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) recruit from them. Their members are ideologically predisposed to viewing the world in stark zero-sum terms, to believe that anyone who is not a supporter is an infidel who should not enjoy legal protections. These groups are also prone to violence.

Rizieq is coy about his own support for the extremist group known as Islamic State. It is clear that he shares its goal of creating a state governed by harsh sharia law, and which denies rights and protections to religious minorities. But he’s too smart to come out and publicly endorse IS and its banned affiliates in Indonesia, knowing that would lead to more legal woes.

His return comes when the JAD and JI have suffered a host of setbacks and recent arrests. Since August alone, police have arrested over 80 JAD suspects.

Second, Rizieq has made clear his intention to inject himself directly into politics: “I return to rejoin my fellow Indonesian Muslims and because I want to fight alongside them.” He also promised to lead the charge against leaders whom he deems as immoral and corrupt. Top among them is President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

While Prabowo Subianto now serves as Jokowi’s defense minister, the former top commander of the army’s special forces (Kopassus) clearly harbors presidential ambitions in 2024. He is likely to continue to court Rizieq and offer him a degree of protection.

Third, the Indonesian economy is still in free fall as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Indonesia is now in its first formal recession since 1998. And sharp economic downturns are always a boon to extremist groups, which seek to scapegoat and provide needed assistance to their in-groups.

Indonesia has nearly 450,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but with low rates of testing, the case load is far higher with no end in sight.

Fourth, even during Rizieq’s three-year absence, there was an uptick in violence toward religious minorities. Between 2017 and 2019, at least 23 attacks targeted minority houses of worship, with many more suspected but going unreported, the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) said in a report last week. These included attacks on Ahmadi and Shia mosques as well as Christian churches.

Rizieq will only seek to escalate such attacks, forcing the government to either acquiesce or come to the defense of non-Muslims, and setting them up for charges of apostasy. Rizieq will likely abuse the country’s blasphemy laws, as he did with Ahok.

Fifth, the government of Jokowi is already under siege. Last month, security forces put down mass protests and arrested hundreds who were demonstrating against the new labor law.

Jokowi’s clear 2019 electoral mandate has been quickly eroded by poor policy choices, the botched COVID-19 response, and a contracting economy. His legitimacy is waning.

Away from the country for the past few years, Rizieq is set to reassert his influence in politics and upend the political status quo. Rizieq’s two-week quarantine may be the most peaceful period for Indonesia in years to come.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and at Georgetown University in Washington. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.

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