Earlier this week, the hardline Indonesian cleric Rizieq Shihab was greeted to a hero’s welcome when he returned to the country after three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia. As founder and head of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI), Rizieq is a star figure in Indonesia’s Islamist fringe, which has recently made alarming leaps toward the political mainstream.
Upon his arrival at Jakarta’s Hatta-Soekarno International Airport, the moon-faced cleric was swamped by thousands of supporters, many wearing white Islamic skull-caps, who chanted Islamic slogans and clogged the road leading from Jakarta’s airport into the center of town. The turnout was so large that it halted traffic to the airport, forcing several airlines to delay flights.
Rizieq returned to Indonesia after the authorities dropped several criminal charges, including one alleged violation of the country’s pornography law. The charge was filed in May 2017 after screen captures emerged of text messages between Rizieq and a female supporter that contained nude photos of the woman. Rizieq subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia, which granted him a special visa and treated him as a political fugitive.
In a speech after arriving home in Petamburan in central Jakarta on November 10, Rizieq said he would continue to agitate for the Islamization of Indonesian society. “My return home today is to call on you and to invite all Indonesian Muslims to join in a moral revolution. Do you agree? Are you ready to start a moral revolution today?” he asked his followers, according to the Associated Press.
Rizieq established the FPI in late 1998, during the political ferment that followed the fall of the Suharto regime, and the group has since been implicated in repeated acts of harassment, intimidation and mob violence against religious, ethnic and sexual minorities. Alongside its street agitations and flag-burnings, it has also conducted charity work that has earned it an increasingly robust base of public support.
FPI seeks to advance a vision of Indonesian identity built solely around a rigid modernist interpretation of Islam – one that axiomatically excludes ethnic and religious minorities. As a senior FPI leader told me in Jakarta in 2017, “if you want to talk about the independence of Indonesia, or our national identity, you can’t separate it from Islam, and the role of the Muslims.”
Prior his flight to Saudi Arabia, Rizieq was a key driving force behind the massive street protests against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the ethnic Chinese and Christian former governor of Jakarta. In 2017, Basuki (known commonly by his Hokkien nickname Ahok), was sentenced to two years’ prison on bogus charges of blasphemy, after allegedly profaning the Quran.
Rizieq’s return, which is likely to reenergize the FPI and other Islamist pressure groups, comes at a febrile time for Indonesia. As of November 9, the country had recorded 440,569 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 14,689 deaths – the highest in Southeast Asia on both counts. The pandemic has pushed Indonesia’s economy into recession for the first time since the Asian financial crash of 1997-98. In the third quarter of this year, the economy shrank by 3.5 percent, following a 5.3 percent contraction in April-June.
As of last month, 3.5 million people had been cast out of work as a result of the pandemic, bringing the country’s total number of unemployed to 10.3 million. Meanwhile, a recent survey found that 65 percent of respondents had suffered a decrease in income since the onset of COVID-19.
The economic downturn offers a gilt-edged opportunity for Rizieq and his radical Islamist allies to advance their cause. Economic grievance has sometimes been an overlooked factor in the growth of Islamic exclusivism in Indonesia in recent years. During the street campaign against Ahok, for instance, the movement gained a considerable degree of support from poor communities in Jakarta that had been negatively affected by slum clearance projects and other development schemes under taken by City Hall.
Islamic activists will gain a further opportunity from the government’s neoliberal Omnibus Bill, the passage of which set off protests across the archipelago last month. While the government says the law will cut red tape and boost investment, unions and civil society groups fear that it will strip away crucial worker protections, reduce workers’ income and weaken environmental protections. Islamist pressure groups joined protests against the bill, and Rizieq even weighed in from his exile in Riyadh, calling on his followers to protest the new legislation and lay siege to Jakarta’s presidential palace.
This suggests that Rizieq, emboldened by the dropping of the charges that drove him into exile, will seek to harness economic uncertainties to drive forward his agenda of Islamic purification. The likely result is a widening gap between those with a pluralistic vision of Indonesian identity, and those who stand on unimaginative interpretations of scripture.