Firebrand cleric ends self-exile to return to Indonesia

Rizieq left country after facing charges over porn messages and insulting state ideology

Rizieq Shihab (centre), leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front, greeting supporters at their headquarters in Jakarta yesterday, following his return from Saudi Arabia.
Rizieq Shihab (centre), leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front, greeting supporters at their headquarters in Jakarta yesterday, following his return from Saudi Arabia.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

JAKARTA • Thousands of supporters gathered at Jakarta's airport yesterday to welcome back Rizieq Shihab, a firebrand cleric and Islamist leader, who went into exile in Saudi Arabia after facing charges over sending pornographic messages and insulting state ideology.

There were chaotic scenes as his supporters, dressed in white, paralysed the airport's toll road, scrambling to get a glimpse of the cleric and trying to kiss his hand, Reuters reported. Some airlines were forced to reschedule flights.

"We really miss him because we know he really fights for Islam and the Indonesian nation," said Mr Abdul Sobur, 42. "I hope Muslims can unite."

Rizieq, who was jailed in 2008 on charges of inciting violence and who is head of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), became a figurehead for conservative Islam and a politically influential movement that helped bring down Jakarta's former Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok", who in 2017 was jailed for insulting Islam.

That year, police filed a case against Rizieq over insulting Indonesia's secular state ideology, Pancasila, and breaching pornography laws, after a purported steamy exchange with a supporter that included naked images of a woman was circulated online.

The cleric left Indonesia in 2017 and police dropped both cases a year later, but he remained in self-exile in Saudi Arabia until yesterday.

Another supporter, Ms Ima Sari Kartika, 39, told Reuters she was jubilant the cleric had returned home to the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

"I have been waiting for his presence among Indonesian Muslims for a long time because Indonesia is the largest Islamic country, so there should be an imam who leads the people here," she said.

The racy claims surrounding Rizieq revolve around WhatsApp chats, purportedly between himself and a female political operative that hogged the headlines in Indonesia in 2017 until he left the country. The WhatsApp exchanges included several naked pictures of the woman, which were sent to Rizieq as they were "sexting".

Tensions that arose between Rizieq and Mr Basuki, a close associate of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, will be closely watched in coming months

Mr Basuki lost in the 2017 gubernatorial election after his opponent played the religion card, triggering massive street rallies involving tens of thousands of Muslims protesting against the governor. Some of these protests were led by Rizieq.

Mr Basuki was in May 2017 convicted of blasphemy against Islam. He was sentenced to a two-year jail term and released in January last year, after getting remission. Rizieq was one of the prosecution witnesses during the blasphemy trial.

Mr Basuki was in November last year appointed president commissioner of Indonesia's state oil and gas company Pertamina.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2020, with the headline 'Firebrand cleric ends self-exile to return to Indonesia'. Subscribe