Hardline cleric's return from exile unlikely to stir Muslim rage in plural Indonesia

Analysts say the huge turnouts to greet cleric Rizieq Shihab at the airport posed little threat to secular Indonesia. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Chaotic scenes of men in white robes and matching turbans celebrating the return of Indonesian firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab from self-exile in Saudi Arabia have been hogging the media spotlight for over a week now.

Carrying posters of their "grand imam" and chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great), thousands had welcomed him at Jakarta's international airport last Tuesday (Nov 10), causing massive jams and sparking fears of a coronavirus spike in a country with nearly half a million cases and more than 15,000 deaths - the highest in South-east Asia.

They are supporters of the Islamic Defenders' Front, or Front Pembela Islam (FPI), a hardline group Mr Rizieq founded a few months after the fall of strongman President Suharto in 1998.

Notorious for religious intolerance and acts of vigilantism, raiding bars during the Ramadan fasting month and attacking minorities - with machetes and swords - the FPI had started out as a civil group with backing from the police and the military to keep a lid on vice.

Once on the fringes of Indonesian politics, the group, which claims five million members, has grown increasingly bold in demanding that sharia law be made official in the world's largest Muslim nation, while muscling its way into the mainstream by lending political support to aspiring office holders.

The FPI had thrived under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but President Joko Widodo in 2017 warned that the authorities would "clobber" groups threatening Indonesia's pluralism and moderate Islam.

At the time, hardline groups including the FPI had mobilised Muslims to rally against his ally, former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian, over charges of blasphemy against Islam. Mr Basuki, better known as Ahok, was jailed for two years.

Mr Rizieq's return after three years has raised concerns that he would again stoke division in Indonesia's multicultural society and raise the political temperature just weeks ahead of the Dec 9 regional election to elect governors, regents and mayors.

But analysts say the huge turnouts to greet the 55-year-old cleric at the airport, as well as at his daughter's wedding and a religious event days later, posed little threat to secular Indonesia.

Since the 2016-2017 Islamist protests against Mr Basuki, President Joko has intensified communication with Muslim leaders and embraced his opponents including presidential foe turned defence minister Prabowo Subianto, who was seen as close to the FPI. Hence, a repeat of unrest of such megascale is unlikely, Paramadina University political analyst Hendri Satrio told The Straits Times.

"There's little danger as long as there continues to be open communication between the government and FPI. It's more dangerous to disband the FPI as it's easier for the government to control a group that exists than one that doesn't," he added.

Agreeing, Prof Amin Abdullah, a professor of philosophy at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic State University, said Mr Rizieq and his followers form a "tiny minority" in the country of 270 million people. Even if the FPI wants to establish itself as a political party, it will be of little relevance to Indonesians who have repeatedly proven at the ballot box that they are not too enamoured of Muslim parties.

"Pluralism is the very texture of Indonesia," he said.

"The authorities will take action when violence is involved. But if it's just rhetoric on the podium, although certainly annoying, better to just let them be. Under Indonesia's system of democracy, we can't stifle freedom of expression and freedom of association," he added.

In just a week, Mr Rizieq has been inciting the crowd with inflammatory rhetoric. A video of his sermon has been making the rounds on social media urging the government to be tough against blasphemers, or "don't blame the Muslims when a head is found on the streets".

Prominent Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra said the FPI has "never been genuinely cooperative" with any Indonesian administration, past or present.

President Joko, or Jokowi as he is better known, has never tried to embrace the FPI and likewise the "FPI refuses to be embraced or be close to Jokowi as it is anti-Jokowi", he added.

"He (Mr Rizieq) has stirred a lot of commotion, uproar and political tensions in Indonesia," Prof Azyumardi told The Straits Times.

"The government must stand firm and not fear Muslim backlash as the mainstream Muslims will never side with or defend Rizieq if he's arrested.

"It's time for President Jokowi to take action against Rizieq and the FPI."

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