Indonesian hardline cleric Rizieq Shihab recently returned from exile to a hero’s welcome in Jakarta. Image: Facebook

JAKARTA – The Indonesian government has rolled out a full-court press against newly-returned radical Islamic leader Rizieq Shihab, with a stern-faced President Joko Widodo and senior security officials warning him that disruptions to democracy and national unity will not be tolerated.

The police chiefs of Jakarta and West Java have both been fired in the wake of a near-riot that greeted Shihab’s November 10 return from exile in Saudi Arabia and for allowing thousands of unmasked followers to cram into a downtown street to celebrate his daughter’s wedding four days later.

In an unprecedented move, Nana Sudjana and Rudy Sufahradi Novianti, both two-star generals, and two district police chiefs were officially relieved of their commands on November 16 for failing to enforce coronavirus protocols and unlawfully closing public facilities.

Mainstream Muslim organizations slammed the government for treating Shihab and his followers with kid gloves, pointing to the decision by coronavirus task force chief Lieutenant General Doni Monardo to hand out hand sanitizers and masks at the cleric’s homecoming.

Police plan to summon Shihab for questioning and say they will ban any future Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) mass gatherings, referencing the concern Widodo showed about the threat to “democratic processes and unity, especially violence” at a November 16 Cabinet session.  

Analysts say the president was taken off-guard by the strength of support for the 55-year-old Shihab, who appears to be announcing himself as a major opposition figure and possible kingmaker ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.

Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab (C), leader of the Indonesian hardline Islamic Defenders Front, gestures to supporters as he arrives to inaugurate a mosque in Bogor on November 13, 2020 Photo: Rangga Firmansyah/NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Widodo can’t serve again but with the pandemic throwing his second-term plans into disarray, he clearly wants to preserve what is left of his legacy and also to ensure the country stays on track as a secular state in the face of growing Muslim conservatism. 

Shihab fled in mid-2017 to escape trial for allegedly engaging in Internet sex-texting, but when police dropped that and a slew of other charges the cleric claimed were politically motivated the Saudi government was apparently encouraged to keep him on ice.

Worried about future political turmoil, Widodo warned Shihab and his FPI that the police and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) had been instructed to take strict action against any unruly gatherings, which health officials worry could cause a major spike in new Covid cases.

After stabilizing in the 3,000-4,000 a day range for several months, new nationwide infections suddenly soared over the 5,000 mark, a record since the virus outbreak last March, almost to the day after the end of a recent long holiday weekend. Jakarta is home to 25% of all Indonesia’s cases.  

Flanked by police chief General Idham Azis and TNI commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, political coordinating minister Mahfud MD homed in on the threat to public health, particularly that posed by the more than 50,000 people who flooded the Soekarno-Hatta airport to welcome Shihab.

“We and everyone in society over the past eight months have done everything to fight Covid, which has caused so many deaths,” he said in a statement that followed the president’s outburst. “But the gatherings in the past week could destroy all our efforts. The people who have done this could make the situation worse.”

The Jakarta Public Order Agency had earlier fined Shihab 50 million rupiah (US$3,530) for ignoring protocols by failing to limit the number of guests at the wedding, estimated at about 10,000, which took place in the teeming downtown district of Tanah Abang.

Among the guests was Titiek Suharto, the late president Suharto’s middle daughter and former wife of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who posted a picture of herself with the bridal couple on her Instagram account. 

Mahfud’s criticism was partly aimed at Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, a fellow member of Jakarta’s ethnic Arab community and the first and only public official to visit Shihab, who played a leading role in the ouster of Baswedan’s predecessor and Widodo’s ally, Basuki Purnama, in 2017.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo in a file photo. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto / Andrew Gal

Widodo has also urged Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, a former police chief and counter-terrorism specialist, to chastize “regional leaders” – presumably including Baswedan – who have not been firm enough in enforcing mask-wearing, physical distancing and other protective measures.

Police now say they will refuse to allow a planned December 2 rally to mark the massive downtown demonstration against Basuki in 2016 after a blasphemy charge against the Chinese-Christian governor gave the Islamic conservatives what they needed to engineer his downfall and eventual imprisonment.

In what may be an implied warning that the case could still be revived, the choice of new Jakarta police chief Inspector-General Muhammad Fadil Imran is interesting. He is the experienced detective who led the investigation into the sexting scandal that forced Shihab to seek refuge abroad.

Analysts say while Widodo gave the go-ahead for Shihab’s return, he appears to have been upset over the failure of intelligence agencies to predict the size of the airport crowd, which canceled flights and created a seven-kilometer-long traffic jam.

“I think they underestimated the numbers,” says one senior diplomatic source. “They thought there would be only 10,000 and security was caught napping. He had high expectations of their support and he is angry they let him down.”

The president can’t have been happy at the arrest of two servicemen providing security at the airport who posted videos on social media expressing their support for Shihab and saying other soldiers shared the same sentiments.    

After promising to bring Shihab home if he won last year’s presidential election, Subianto has studiously avoided public comment. But as a member of an otherwise Christian family, his unlikely alliance with the firebrand cleric was always built solely on shared political interests. 

Retired three-star general Fachrul Razi, whose appointment as religious affairs minister last year was seen to be part of Widodo’s campaign to turn back the rising tide of Islamisation, has also remained silent, perhaps because his public appearances have been limited since he caught Covid-19 in September.

While there was no good time for Shihab to return, the diplomat says by putting it off so long the government allowed him to become a perceived martyr. “They needed to think about what to do with him better than this, but they kept kicking the can down the road,” he told Asia Times.

Meantime, relishing his growing status, Shihab and his 15-man entourage were using social media to communicate with his followers, estimated at more than 15 million and mostly concentrated in West Java, which surrounds Jakarta on three sides.

Laborers rally against the Job Creation Omnibus law critics fear will favor investors at the expense of worker rights and the environment, Jakarta, October 22, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Analysts agree that with demonstrations against the controversial Job Creation Omnibus Law dying down, it is unlikely Shihab will be able to mobilize the sort of forces he and the conservative 212 Coalition did during the perfect storm of 2016-207.

Nor is there any reason at this point to weaken Widodo when he is already struggling to revive the pandemic-ravaged economy. But as a populist hardliner who relishes stirring the pot, Shihab won’t be making things easier for the president either.     

At one of several mass events celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, which coincided with Shihab’s return, FPI-affiliated cleric Idrus Jamalullail, was quoted as saying: “I pray to God that the lives of Jokowi (Widodo) and Megawati (ruling Indonesian Party for Struggle leader Megawati Sukarnoputri) be shortened.”