TANGERANG, INDONESIA - NOVEMBER 10: Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab arrives at the International Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia on November 10, 2020. The leader behind mass rally 411 and 212 return to Indonesia after resided in Saudi Arabia since 2017. Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

JAKARTA – Islamic firebrand Rizieq Shihab’s return to a hero’s welcome from three years in exile in Saudi Arabia may momentarily raise political temperatures in Indonesia but he is unlikely to regain the momentum he enjoyed in bringing down Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama.

Thousands of his supporters, most of them unmasked, stopped flights and caused extensive damage around Soekarno-Hatta international airport waiting to catch a glimpse of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader as he flew into the Indonesian capital from Jeddah on November 10.

Although the 55-year-old cleric had signaled his impending return last month, President Joko Widodo’s government has made little official comment and some senior officials claimed they were unaware he was coming home until he actually arrived.

The tabloid Koran Tempo splashed “Pulang” (Coming Home) across its front page with a picture of Shihab in his customary white robes, but Kompas, the country’s biggest daily newspaper, reverted it to a back page in its November 11 edition, leading instead with the impending distribution of a coronavirus vaccine. 

Political Coordinating Minister Mahfud MD has only said Shihab had the right as an Indonesian citizen to end his exile, which began when he fled Indonesia in mid-2017 after being accused of violating the 2008 Anti-Pornography Law by exchanging sexually explicit text messages with a woman who was not his wife.

The cleric also faced several other criminal charges but sources in the Muslim community said he was well aware that embarrassing evidence of him engaging in pornography would have caused lasting damage to his reputation during a public trial.

The FPI leader claimed the charge was politically motivated, but although police reportedly dropped it in June 2018, citing a lack of evidence, Shihab refused to come home, saying at one point that Indonesian democracy was “more dangerous than pig’s meat.”

Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab at the International Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia on November 10, 2020. Photo: Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Speculation mounted that Indonesia had asked the Saudis to keep him on ice for political reasons. Indeed, sources familiar with the arrangement say Jakarta did pay for his accommodations and for the lavish lifestyle he enjoyed, along with a 15-man entourage.

Analysts say there was never going to be a good time for Shihab’s return but they doubt his ability to mobilize the same forces on Jakarta’s streets he did as one of the leaders of the conservative 212 Movement which brought about Purnama’s politicized downfall in 2017.

That didn’t stop him from telling his cheering supporters that he had returned to lead a “moral revolution” against “cheating leaders.” He added: “I return to rejoin my fellow Indonesian Muslims and because I want to fight alongside them.”

Apart from being convicted of blasphemy, which earned him two years in jail, Purnama was also a double negative in Indonesia’s majority Muslim context – a Christian and an ethnic Chinese. Despite his widespread popularity, those elements taken together inevitably drew large numbers of mainstream Muslims into the radical camp.

Shihab is unlikely to pose the same threat to Widodo, a seasoned politician who warded off a strong challenge from conservative voters to win a second term in last year’s race with Prabowo Subianto, now the unlikely defense minister in his new Cabinet.

It also isn’t clear what happened to other unresolved cases against Shihab, including one involving his false claim that the design of new Indonesian rupiah notes contains hidden communist symbols, and another that he blasphemed against Christianity in a sermon.

Although he has not been named a suspect in either case, they may remain open to potential indictment. The pornography case could also be re-opened if investigators find the witness who uploaded the offensive material on the Internet, giving the government potential leverage over him if he steps out of line.

Even in exile, Shihab remained a controversial figure. In late 2018, Saudi authorities briefly detained him for hoisting a flag at his Mecca residence that resembled the black standard of the Islamic State (ISIS), whose caliphate was then on the brink of collapse.

An Islamist group member holds a Hizbut Tharir poster during an anti-communist protest outside parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 29, 2017. Photo: Agencies

Shihab said it was related to his call for all FPI branches to fly flags bearing the shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith, after paramilitary followers of the mainstream Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) organization burned the standard of the newly-outlawed pan-Islamist Hizbut Tahrir (HTI) group.

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

It was the first time the government had 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 were growing to dangerous levels.

Shihab’s problems did not end with the flag. On top of restrictions being imposed on his activities in Saudi Arabia, apparently at Jakarta’s request, Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials said he had also over-stayed his visa, which expired on July 20, 2018.

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

Now that he is back, Shihab is likely to be closely watched. Without him at the forefront, the sting has gone out of the FPI and the conservative coalition that dominated the political stage for much of 2017 and dogged Widodo in the lead up to the 2019 election.

Analysts dismiss a link between the cleric’s return and the newly-formed Masyumi Reborn, an effort by fading leaders like Amien Rais and Yusril Mahendra to revive the major Islamic party banned by president Sukarno in 1960 for supporting the so-called Permesta Rebellion.

In fact, as part of Jakarta’s ethnic Arab community, Shihab grew up in the conservative wing of Nahdlatul Ulama and is unlikely to affiliate himself with any political party, certainly not at this point with the 2024 presidential field still wide open.

Members of Islamist groups wave flags during a rally at The National Monument compound as they celebrate the one-year anniversary of a protest that brought down former ethnic Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama in Jakarta, Indonesia, December 2, 2017. Photo: Agencies

Instead, analysts believe he will keep his powder dry, preferring to use the estimated 15 million votes he is reported to control in Jakarta and the neighbouring provinces of West Java and Banten to bargain for money and favorable policies with emerging party coalitions.

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.

Over the past two decades, the FPI has earned a reputation for thuggish behavior, attacking various minority groups and their places of worship and launching raids on so-called “immoral’ entertainment places, particularly during Ramadan.

Shihab himself has 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.

One such cable said the group’s 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 to mount on the FPI following Purnama’s downfall with civil society activists and the two biggest political parties, Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle and Golkar, urging the government to take stronger action against mass organizations they said were a threat to national unity.