The Return of a Firebrand Cleric: Consolidation of Islamic Vigilantism?

The return of a firebrand cleric to Indonesia will have an impact on the dynamics of religiosity in the country. It will also empower and consolidate groups opposed to the government of Joko Widodo.

Rizieq Shihab speaks to supporters gathered at the Jakarta International Airport in Tangerang on November 10, 2020, following his return from Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Fajrin Raharjo, AFP)
Ahmad Najib Burhani

Ahmad Najib Burhani

11 November 2020

Habib Rizieq Shihab, the firebrand cleric and supreme leader of hardline Muslim organisation Islam Defenders Front (FPI), returned back to Jakarta yesterday. The date, 10 November, is significant for it coincides with the commemoration of Heroes’ Day in Indonesia. Since 26 April 2017, Shihab has been in a self-exile in Saudi Arabia. He was named by Indonesian police as a suspect in two cases: one involving pornography case and an alleged defamation of Pancasila.

Shihab’s arrival was welcomed in many quarters, with various billboards and banners posted in various corners in Jakarta and other cities across Indonesia. A giant billboard, for instance, has been erected at Pondok Pesantren Markaz Syariah, an Islamic boarding school in Bogor, West Java. Thousands of his followers gathered at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Tangerang since dawn to welcome him. More than 18,000 viewers watched the live-stream of his arrival at Front TV Channel on YouTube. While the Google-owned platform permitted the broadcast of the live-stream, Facebook has banned anyone from posting pictures related to Shihab. Under Facebook’s community standards, Shihab and the FPI are deemed as “dangerous individuals and organisations”.

The return of the firebrand cleric will have manifold implications, particularly in politics and religiosity in Indonesia. Shihab and his FPI colleagues are called by Ahmad Syafii Maarif, former chairman of Muhammadiyah, as “religious thugs”. In Bahasa Indonesia, preman berjubah literally means thugs draped in Arab garb. The FPI’s main activities centre on the eradication of vice and immorality in society. It employs tactics such as raiding bars, gambling dens, and discotheques. It also seeks to combat pornography, prostitution and the consumption of drugs. It is called preman berjubah because its “criminal extortion and racketeering”, using Ian Wilson’s terms, are covered by “the symbols and rhetoric of Islamic morality”. Since 2005, Shihab and FPI have expanded their activities from morality issues to theological ones. They have attacked what they considered to be deviant religious groups, such as Ahmadiyah. Since 2005, the FPI has become more involved in politics. In past elections, for example, they forged pacts with gubernatorial, regent or mayoral candidates to implement shariah (Islamic law) and sought to ban deviant groups.

In Bahasa Indonesia, preman berjubah literally means thugs draped in Arab garb.

Shihab attained the zenith of his political role and influence during the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in 2017. He successfully organised street protests and rallies, famously called the series of Aksi Bela Islam (Action of Defending Islam), to block the re-election of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama as Jakarta’s governor. The former governor, who goes by the popular moniker Ahok, was accused of committing blasphemy for his comment on Al-Maidah 51, a verse in the Quran, during a speech in Kepulauan Seribu on 27 September 2016. The rallies caused Ahok to lose the election, and even forced the government to start a legal process that saw him convicted of blasphemy and put in jail for two years. Since then, Shihab has been declared by his followers to be the Imam Besar (Supreme Leader) of the Indonesian Muslim community.

Shihab’s return is just one month before the scheduled simultaneous regional elections on 9 December. The polls will span across 270 regions, covering nine provinces, 224 regencies and 37 municipalities. His return also comes at a time when the trust of people in the central government and the president, Joko Widodo, is at very low levels. Conversely, the non-parliamentary opposition to the government led by the Save Indonesia Coalition (KAMI) is on the rise. Therefore, Shihab’s return will probably strengthen the allies of groups opposed to the government.

At the minimum, Shihab’s return would consolidate, empower and rejuvenate the 212 movement, named after the successful rally on 2 December 2016 that led to Ahok’s downfall. The movement has subsequently scattered and become disenfranchised, particularly after Shihab’s departure in 2017. The short-term influence of the consolidation and empowerment would be on regional elections. A more serious impact would likely be in the opposition to Joko Widodo. The presence of Shihab will have an impact on controversial issues such as the Omnibus Law on Job Creation (Undang-Undang Cipta Kerja) and the bill on Pancasila Ideology Guidelines (HIP). As history has shown, he can marshal the masses and stage rallies. This would lend some weight to ongoing protests against the government. It is true that the FPI has outgrown its bulwark activities through the establishment of a publishing house and the conducting of humanitarian activities. Still, the organisation of street protests and rally will remain its core activities, and perhaps its raison d’être.

The most visible impact of the return of Shihab will be on the dynamics of religiosity in Indonesia. His presence will rejuvenate religious vigilantism. With Christmas just round the corner, the anti-Christmas movement the Indonesia would be able to tap on the new – and raw – energy coming from the firebrand cleric.

Dr Ahmad Najib Burhani is Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Research Professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/181

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.