Explainer: What hardline Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab's return means for Indonesian politics

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian police arrested firebrand Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab on Saturday on suspicion of violating coronavirus protocols after the staging of several mass gatherings since his return from self-exile in Saudi Arabia last month.

FILE PHOTO: Rizieq Shihab, the leader of Indonesian Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), is greeted by supporters at the Tanah Abang, Jakarta, Indonesia, November 10, 2020. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/File Photo

The arrest comes after six of his bodyguards were shot dead by police last week and raises further concerns about a boiling over of tensions between authorities and Islamist groups in the world’s biggest Muslim majority nation.

WHO IS RIZIEQ SHIHAB?

As head of the hardline Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), Rizieq has for years cut a controversial figure in Indonesian politics.

He was jailed in 2008 for inciting violence and left Indonesia in 2017 after facing charges of pornography, and insulting state ideology. Those charges have since been dropped.

Formed in 1998, in the tumultuous months after president Suharto stood down, the FPI initially had close links to security forces and became notorious for raiding bars and brothels, as well as violence against minorities, and preventing a Lady Gaga concert. It has also been involved in humanitarian work after natural disasters.

But moving from the fringes it has increased its political sway and in 2016 Rizieq was a key figure in a mass movement against Jakarta’s former Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, who was jailed for insulting Islam.

The huge 2016 rallies raised concern about a threat to Indonesia’s pluralist tradition and its secular state. President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, also viewed them as among the biggest threats to his government.

In the weeks since his return, Rizieq has declared plans for a “moral revolution”.

WHY WAS RIZIEQ ARRESTED?

After twice ignoring police summonses, Rizieq turned himself in and was arrested.

He was charged with obstruction of law enforcement, incitement of criminal acts and violation of the quarantine law. He could face a maximum six years in prison if convicted.

The charges relate to mass events including the tens of thousands of people who showed up to greet Rizieq at the airport and his daughter’s well-attended wedding.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE SHOOTOUT?

Police say they were tailing a convoy of Rizieq supporters after hearing the FPI was preparing to mobilise. Police say they acted in self-defence when they shot the six supporters dead after firearms were pointed at them.

The FPI has described the incident as an “extrajudicial killing” and said Rizieq and his entourage were unarmed and travelling to a dawn prayer when attacked by unknown assailants.

Amnesty International Indonesia and Indonesia Police Watch have called for an independent investigation, and Indonesia’s human rights commission has since opened a probe.

HOW BIG A FORCE IS ISLAM IN INDONESIAN POLITICS?

With nearly 90% of the population Muslim, Islam has always been important in Indonesian politics. Every president has been Muslim and the 2016 rallies saw Islam take on an increasingly prominent political role.

In a move seen as an attempt to appeal to Islamic voters, Jokowi chose cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice presidential running mate in 2019 and after the election appointed his poll opponent, Prabowo Subianto, who had backing from Islamist groups, as defence minister.

WHAT COULD HAPPEN NOW?

Political analysts say given an opposition vacuum, the pandemic and the first recession in 22 years, Rizieq could harness frustrations with the government and pose a threat.

The 55-year-old has already met with several key opposition figures and there is a sense that he could be a kingmaker in the 2024 election.

More immediately, the police clash has seen the FPI hail the dead as ‘martyrs’ and call for demonstrations.

According to sources and analysts the government grossly underestimated Rizieq’s continued appeal and quickly understood it needed to carefully calibrate its response to Rizieq.

Despite a more vocal backlash from pluralists and moderate Islamic groups toward Rizieq this year, the fatal clash is unlikely to have met the careful approach the administration had been aiming for.

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