Indonesian preacher with controversial track record

Islamic Defenders Front leader Rizieq Shihab (centre) has bee embroiled in many criminal investigations.
Islamic Defenders Front leader Rizieq Shihab (centre) has bee embroiled in many criminal investigations.PHOTO: AFP

Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab returned from Saudi Arabia on Nov 10, the National Heroes' Day in Indonesia, after a three-year self-imposed exile, calling for a "moral revolution" to save the country.

"In a moral revolution, disobedient people become pious. Let us eradicate injustice, agree? Let us eradicate corruption, agree?" he said in his first remarks to a crowd of keen followers.

But the charismatic preacher, 55, has been embroiled in many criminal investigations. Among the most controversial ones was an alleged sex scandal with a female supporter named Firza Husein, whose nude photos and messages exchanged with Mr Rizieq on WhatsApp were leaked and circulated online in early 2017.

He was subsequently charged under Indonesia's anti-pornography law, which was ironically passed in 2006 with his strong support. However, he fled to Saudi Arabia in April 2017 before the police could interrogate him. The charge, and another related to Mr Rizieq's alleged attack against the state ideology Pancasila, was later dropped.

From Saudi Arabia, the cleric continued to exert his influence on Indonesia's politics virtually. He once appeared in a video shown during a major campaign rally for Mr Prabowo Subianto, the only opponent of President Joko Widodo in last year's presidential election.

Mr Rizieq was previously imprisoned at least twice. In 2003, he was sentenced to seven months in jail for opposing law enforcers and ordering his vigilante group FPI to attack a number of Jakarta's night entertainment venues, which they condemned as "immoral places". He also served 11/2 years in prison after the group, under his command, was found guilty of attacking an alliance that fought for religious freedom in 2008.

Human rights groups have recorded numerous violent assaults by the FPI against minorities, such as Ahmadiyahs and Christians.

Pluralism advocates have also reported Mr Rizieq, a champion of syariah law, for insulting cultural values and religious beliefs of others as well as spreading hatred.

While in the past, the FPI was mostly known for its notorious "sweeping operations" in bars and hotels during the Ramadan fasting month, it became more prominent after the firebrand cleric led a massive sectarian movement in 2016 against then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok.

Mr Basuki, a Chinese-Christian politician, lost in the 2017 gubernatorial election and was convicted of blasphemy against Islam. He was jailed for two years.

Observers believe that despite his controversial track record, Mr Rizieq is a figure to watch in Indonesia's politics as Islamist groups in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation are consolidating their power for the 2024 presidential and legislative elections.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2020, with the headline 'Preacher with controversial track record'. Print Edition | Subscribe