Indonesian Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab gestures as he delivers a speech to his supporters inside a court room in Jakarta in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Now in his second year of self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia’s extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) founder, Rizieq Shihab, is finding he can’t always do as he likes in his new safe haven, where he fled to escape pornography and other criminal charges at home.

In early November, Saudi authorities briefly detained the 53-year-old cleric for allegedly hoisting a flag at his Mecca residence that resembled the black standard of the Islamic State (ISIS), whose self-proclaimed caliphate is now on the brink of collapse.

The Indonesian government was forced to deny allegations that the flag raising was a black intelligence operation designed to embarrass the FPI leader, who supports opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto in next April’s presidential race.

Shihab’s problems do not end there. On top of restrictions being imposed on his activities in Saudi Arabia, Indonesian foreign ministry officials say he has also over-stayed his visa, which expired on July 20.

Any foreign national seeking to extend their stay is required to leave the country before they can do so, but Saudi authorities have complicated matters by stopping him from flying to Malaysia on three separate occasions in July.

The flag raising appeared to be related to Shihab’s call for all FPI branches to fly flags bearing the shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith, after members of the mainstream Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) organization burned the standard of the outlawed Hizbut Tahrir (HTI) in Garut, West Java, on October 22.

Protesters from the radical Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) protest to support Indonesian clerics including Rizieq Shihab in Jakarta, February 5, 2017. Photo: Adek Berry

Part of a worldwide extremist organization whose flag is similar to those flown by ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, HTI was officially banned in Indonesia under a presidential decree issued in July 2017, which branded it as a threat to national security.

It was the first time the government has taken such a draconian measure since the birth of democracy in the late 1990s. But critics have long complained that ignoring the dangers of religiously-inspired incitement is the reason extremism and intolerance has grown to dangerous levels.

Hizbut Tahrir was deemed a threat because it supports the creation of an Islamic caliphate stretching from Morocco to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao that would usurp the power of sovereign governments. It is already banned in most Arab countries.

Disbanding the FPI would be far more difficult, despite the group’s long involvement in attacks on minority groups and their places of worship and on so-called “immoral” entertainment places over the past 15 years.

A staunch critic of President Joko Widodo, Shihab has long supported Subianto, who last month signed a so-called integrity pact with the National Fatwa Guards Movement (GNPF), a conservative coalition which opposes Widodo’s re-election.

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in Jakarta, August 10 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/ Eko Siswono Toyudho

Two members of NU’s paramilitary youth wing were jailed for 10 days for carrying out the October 25 flag burning in Garut, despite demonstrations by extremist groups across the country calling for the men to be charged with blasphemy.

But the failure of the protests to reach critical mass is an indication that the wider Muslim community has little appetite for creating the same divisive furor that brought down ethnic-Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama last year.

Indeed, as controversial as it was, Widodo’s choice of hardline cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate appears to have removed religious populism as a major factor in the campaign for next April’s presidential election.

Without Shihab at the forefront, a lot of the sting has gone out of the FPI and the conservative coalition that dominated the political stage for much of the last year and clearly worried Widodo far more than he was prepared to let on.

Shihab fled Indonesia in May last year after being accused of violating the 2008 Anti-Pornography Law by exchanging sexually explicit text messages with a woman who was not his wife — a charge that had earlier earned local pop star Nazril Irham a three-year jail term.

Rizieq Shihad prays in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

The FPI leader claims the charge was politically motivated, but although police dropped it last June, citing a lack of evidence, Shihab has refused to come home, famously saying at one point that Indonesia’s democracy was “more dangerous than pig’s meat.”

That’s because he is still facing two other pending cases, one involving his false claim that the design of the new Indonesian rupiah notes contains hidden communist symbols, and another that he blasphemed against Christianity in one of his sermons.

Although he has not been named a suspect in either of the two cases, they remain open to potential indictment. Even the pornography case could be re-opened if investigators are able to find the key witness who uploaded the offensive material on the Internet.

An Arab-Indonesian educated at Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University, Shihab founded the FPI in August 1998, less than three months after the fall of President Suharto, who had kept a tight rein on Muslim activism for much of his 32-year rule.

Shihab has already served a total of two years in jail – in 2003 and again in 2008 — for inciting his followers to carry out violent acts. In 2011, leaked US diplomatic cables claimed the police had been funding the group and using it as an “attack dog” to extort businesses.

Islamic Defenders Front (PFI) members shout slogans during an anti-communism campaign in Jakarta, June 03, 2016. Photo: NurPhoto via Reuters/ Agoes Rudianto

One cable said the sponsors had created an uncontrollable “monster,” adding: “Although anyone with money can hire FPI for political purposes, no one outside of the group can control Rizieq Shihab, who functions as his own boss.”

Still, pressure began mounting on the FPI early last year with civil society activists and the two biggest political parties urging the government to take stronger action against mass organizations they said were threatening national unity.

Seemingly untouchable until then, Shihab became a target after leading mass protests against the otherwise popular Purnama, who subsequently failed in his bid for re-election and was later jailed for three years on a charge of blasphemy.

The former governor may remain out of sight behind bars, but like Shihab he is not out of mind. Last weekend saw the premiere of “A Man Called Ahok,” a film based on Purnama’s formative years in southern Sumatra that carried a few telling messages, but stopped short of depicting his venture into public life.

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