Indonesian soldiers shout slogans during a rehearsal for a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the military in Cilegon, Banten province, October 2015.  Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Indonesian soldiers shout slogans during a rehearsal for a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the military in Cilegon, Banten province, October 2015. Photo: Twitter

JAKARTA – Early December is stacking up as a test of wills between President Joko Widodo’s government and Islamic militants, emboldened by the return from exile of radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab breathing fiery threats of a so-called “moral revolution.”

But Widodo has the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) firmly on his side with Jakarta regional commander Major General Dudung Abdurachman threatening to dissolve the FPI if it continues to cause trouble. “Don’t ever go against the TNI,” he said. “This is an order. Don’t forget it.” 

“I will not hesitate to take serious action,” he warned in the November 20 statement, the strongest in memory from a serving Indonesian army officer against radical Islamists. “Don’t try to disturb our unity and integrity. Don’t feel as if you are representing all Muslims.

“A good Muslim is one who believes in caring and tolerance for everyone and everything,” he continued. “Don’t just talk nonsense about fire and hell. I get very upset when I hear habibs spout bad things during religious ceremonies. That is bad, that is dirty. As a Muslim, I can’t accept it.”

A member of Jakarta’s ethnic Arab-Betawi community, Shihab is a Saudi Arabia-educated kyai (religious teacher), who also claims to be a habib, or a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.

Events are likely to come to a head on December 2, the anniversary of the mass demonstrations organized by the conservative 212 Movement that led to the downfall of Chinese-Christian Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Widodo ally, in 2016.

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

Police have refused to issue a permit for that and all other mass gatherings, citing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far killed 3,679 people in Jakarta and neighboring West Java and Banten provinces, nearly a quarter of the nationwide death toll.

Western Java also has had more than a third of the 500,000 total infections across the country of 270 million and has been subject to frequent partial lockdowns over the past eight months to keep the virus contained.

Abdurachman said he had instructed the tearing down of posters repeating Shihab’s threats of  “moral revolution” and said he had also ordered stepped-up mobile patrols around the FPI’s Tanah Abang headquarters to guard against “unwanted incidents.”

“I will clean everything up,” he said. “There will be no banners calling for people to commit revolution. Don’t think that he (Shihab) represents all Muslims. Not at all. There are many other Muslims who are good.”

The day before, Tjahjanto made a high-profile inspection of military units around Jakarta, including the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus), the 1st Marine Brigade and the air force special forces (Paskhas), where he stressed the importance of national unity.

Jakarta is also home to the Army Strategic Reserve’s (Kostrad) 1st Division, part of the regular army’s main 35,000-strong combat formation, and a territorial infantry brigade attached to the regional command.

TNI spokesman Major-General Achmad Riyad told reporters: “TNI can’t be complacent. The inspection is an expression of the TNI’s loyalty. We don’t mention names, but we will be alert. Some groups have raised the issue of (political) identity.”

Because of its role in Indonesia’s struggle for independence, the TNI enjoys far more respect than the notoriously corrupt police, who took over responsibility for internal security from the military with the birth of democracy in 1998.

In the past, police generals have often been accused of using the FPI as a stand-over force to blackmail the owners of nightclubs, bars and other entertainment venues that have been a favored target of thuggish raids.

Indonesian commentators say the TNI’s involvement in the current situation remains a “grey area.” Despite being a designated external defense force, the military has always claimed that its underlying duty is as “protector of the nation.”

Jakarta regional commander Major General Dudung Abdurachman has threatened to dissolve the FPI if it causes trouble. Image: Twitter

A former governor of Indonesia’s Military Academy, Abdurachman, 55, was only promoted to the prized capital post last July on the recommendation of long-serving TNI commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, a Widodo loyalist.

Traditionally, the Jayakarta chief is the only one among the country’s 15 regional commanders whose appointment must be personally approved by the president, according to sources familiar with the practice.

Abdurachman is a graduate of the military’s academy’s 1988 class, whose members include recently-promoted Deputy Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herman Asaribab, the first ethnic Papuan to hold such a high-ranking post.

Army Chief of Staff General Andika Perkasa is another Widodo loyalist, the son-in-law of Hendropriyono, the former director of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and one of two candidates in line for TNI chief when Tjahjanto retires next year. 

The violence-prone FPI is the sharp spearhead of the 212 coalition which has said it will only conform with the ban on mass gatherings if the government postpones nationwide regional elections scheduled for December 9.

The mass Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah have already urged the postponement of the elections for governors, mayors and regents because of fears that they will act as superspreaders of the coronavirus.

Indonesians on a boat destined for remote islands in the city of Batam, Riau Islands, Indonesia, on July 29, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Teguh Prihatna

Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) data shows that the polls in 50 of the 224 regencies where elections are to be held are in the highly-vulnerable category. Another 126 electorates are considered to pose a medium threat to the 100 million eligible voters.

Only two of the nine provinces in Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi that are scheduled to hold four-yearly gubernatorial races have had more than 5,000 Covid-19 cases, according to government data.     

Health officials are bracing for a major spike in cases after more than 50,000 followers crowded Soekarno-Hatta Airport on December 10 to welcome home Shihab from three years’ exile in Saudi Arabia.

His daughter’s wedding four days later attracted another 10,000 people in downtown Jakarta, many of whom failed to wear masks or follow other health protocols that have been in force for months.

Hundreds of protesters from the radical Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) held a protest to support Indonesian clerics, including Rizieq Shihab, in Jakarta, February 5, 2017. Photo: Adek Berry
Hundreds of protesters from the radical Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) held a protest to support Indonesian clerics including Rizieq Shihab in Jakarta, February 5, 2017. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP

The police chiefs of Jakarta and West Java were both fired for not enforcing the protocols and their replacements will understand a similar fate awaits them if they fail to act forcefully on virus containment measures.

Shihab’s talk of a “moral revolution” against the government is ironic given the fact that when he fled Indonesia in mid-2017 it was to avoid prosecution for allegedly engaging in internet text-sexting with a woman who was not his wife.

In a direct message to the firebrand cleric, Abdurachman told him: “If you are truly a religious leader, then you then you should have good thoughts and do good deeds, otherwise you are not one.”