Fate of firebrand Jakarta cleric to be decided today

Critics not surprised police are investigating hardline group's leader for insulting state ideology and making hate speeches

Mr Rizieq (with microphone) leading a protest outside the National Police headquarters in Jakarta last week, in which he called for a provincial police chief to step down over what the FPI says was police violence against its members.
Mr Rizieq (with microphone) leading a protest outside the National Police headquarters in Jakarta last week, in which he called for a provincial police chief to step down over what the FPI says was police violence against its members.PHOTO: REUTERS

Indonesian cleric Habib Rizieq Shihab claims to come from a long line of descendants of Prophet Muhammad, and touts himself as a "great imam" or Islamic leader.

To the people in Jakarta, though, he is the mastermind behind recent protests against the city's governor, who has been accused by hardline groups like the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) - or Islamic Defenders' Front - of insulting Islam.

Now, the government may be turning the tables on him. The West Java police were scheduled to determine today if Mr Rizieq insulted the state ideology of Pancasila at one of his fiery speeches, Indonesia's Tempo magazine reported.

His supporters have called on people to gather at a main mosque in the capital this morning and march to the Jakarta police station to show support.

As chairman of FPI, Mr Rizieq has led three street ralliers against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama - better known as Ahok - between October and December. The rallies involved thousands of Muslims mobilised by FPI and culminated in the Chinese-Christian politician being arrested for the blasphemy allegations.

That case is now before the courts even as Basuki is running for re-election. But the anti-Ahok movement started by FPI has turned the gubernatorial election into a test of religious and racial tolerance.

The mission of FPI reflects the personal beliefs of Mr Rizieq, who founded the group in 1998, amid a period of political instability and racial violence against the ethnic Chinese in Jakarta. Although the FPI advocates Islamic values, critics have referred to it as thugs with a penchant for extorting protection fees from bars and nightclubs.

It was said that, in its early years under Mr Rizieq's leadership, the group was backed by rogue police and military officers, who for years had turned a blind eye to its activities against minorities.

The 51-year-old was eventually jailed twice, first in 2003 for inciting his followers to violently harass nightspots in Jakarta, then in 2008 for attacking a minority group that was holding a vigil to rally against racial and religious intolerance.

After serving his second prison sentence, he slipped into obscurity only to resurface recently to lead the call for the removal of Basuki.

Mr Rizieq was born in Jakarta to an Indonesia-Arab family and went to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to study at the King Saud University. He is married to Madam Fadlun Yahya and they have seven children.

Despite an extended education in Islam, many observers have questioned his radical, often violent, methods in advocating the religion. It thus came as no surprise to his critics that police are now investigating Mr Rizieq for a string of criminal offences, ranging from making hate speeches to insulting Pancasila.

Last week, they interrogated Mr Rizieq for more than six hours for defaming Pancasila and and its author, Indonesia's founding president Sukarno. The accusation revolves around a two-minute-long video that showed Mr Rizieq claiming to an audience that Mr Sukarno had written an earlier version of Pancasila that did not reflect the belief in God as the nation's value.

However, police have not named Mr Rizieq as a suspect yet, while waiting to question witnesses and search for evidence, Tempo said, but that could change today.

The case is the first of at least five police reports lodged against Mr Rizieq, including one filed by a local Catholic group, which accuses him of making blasphemous comments about Jesus Christ.

Last Friday, the West Java prosecutor's office announced it would be questioning Mr Rizieq, fuelling talk that he will be arrested and charged in court soon.

Many observers, however, have questioned why he was not hauled in earlier, adding that his actions in recent months were sufficient grounds for the police to act.

"On legal grounds, the authorities have more than enough to arrest Rizieq, but the question is whether they want to do it or not," said a prominent Jakarta-based lawyer, who asked not to be named over fears of reprisal from FPI.

Mr Rizieq has his share of supporters, such as Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) deputy chairman Muhyidin Junaidi, who have come out to defend him.

"If Rizieq is arrested, that would amount to injustice and open room for radical and extremist movements to rise," Mr Muhyidin told The Straits Times last week.

"He is a prominent leader who does not fret when expressing his views and stance (on Islam) publicly. If certain people get offended or have different views with him, that is normal."

Mr Said Aqil Siradj, chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, disagreed with the MUI leader. Without naming Mr Rizieq, he told The Straits Times that FPI leaders who consistently deliver hate speeches do not reflect the true values of Islam.

Meanwhile, several local community groups have stepped up to call for FPI to be disbanded. They include members of the United West Java People's Coalition, which held a rally against FPI in Bandung, West Java, and also submitted a public petition to the Ministry of Home Affairs to shut down FPI.

Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P) lawmaker Masinton Pasaribu said it is the "perfect time" for the government to act against such intolerant groups. "It's just like playing football, every violation should be sanctioned, (so if they) repeatedly violate the law, they should be given red cards."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Fate of firebrand Jakarta cleric to be decided today'. Subscribe