Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Indonesian hardline organization FPI, with supporters as he arrives to inaugurate a mosque in Bogor on November 13, 2020. Photo: AFP/Aditya Saputra

The Indonesian government appears to have adopted a policy of containment to deal with firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab, whose return from three years of exile in Saudi Arabia filled a leadership vacuum for millions of Islamic hardliners across Jakarta and western Java.

But his followers appear uncertain about what to do as the police consider charges against the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader for failing to comply with Covid-19 protocols during the wedding of his daughter and in events celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

As a result, with security forces prominent on Jakarta’s streets, the December 2 anniversary of the 2016 mass demonstration that led to the downfall of Christian-Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama passed relatively peacefully.

Heavily-armed police scuffled with FPI followers before they gained entry to Shihab’s house in Jakarta’s downtown Petamburan district to deliver a second summons for him to appear for questioning. He now faces arrest if he refuses to comply.

The incident came a day after Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan announced he had tested positive for Covid-19. It was three weeks since he became the only public official to call on the newly-returned Shihab, who played a leading role in his 2017 election.

Shihab fuelled speculation he was also suffering from the virus when he refused a request from local authorities to undergo a swab test and slipped out the back door of a hospital in Bogor, south of Jakarta, where he had been admitted for “exhaustion.”

His lawyers claim he tested negative for Covid-19 in a procedure carried out by the Medical Emergency Rescue Committee (MER-C), a Muslim humanitarian group that refused to comment on the state of his health, citing doctor-patient confidentiality.

MER-C chairman Sarbini Abdul Murad claimed in a statement that Bogor Mayor Bima Arya Sugiarto had violated medical ethics by allegedly “intervening” with the cleric’s medical team and revealing details of the patient’s condition.

Government sources told Asia Times that the mayor’s Covid-19 task force had gone to the hospital to check on Shihab’s condition because of suspicions that he may have contracted the virus.

“Not any organization has the right to swab a person,” said one senior official. “Mer-C doesn’t have its own laboratory or the proper permits to do that sort of work.”

Tensions between the government and the FPI continue to simmer. On December 1, dozens of Shihab supporters appeared outside the Madura, East Java home of the parents of political coordinating minister Mahfud MD to protest against the police investigation.

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

Security officials are also reportedly looking into a video-taped gathering near the FPI’s Petamburan headquarters where a call to prayer attended by white-robed, fist-pumping adherents allegedly contained references to violent jihad.

The FPI has enjoyed immunity for years, attacking minority groups, raiding places of entertainment on supposed moral grounds and acting as a stand-over force for corrupt police officers looking to blackmail businesses.

But times have changed. In an unprecedented move, President Joko Widodo fired the police chiefs of Jakarta and West Java on the same day for allowing Shihab to flaunt health protocols, which led to fears of a spike in coronavirus cases.

The president was shocked at the 50,000-strong airport crowd that greeted the FPI leader, but there has been widespread support for Jakarta military commander Maj-Gen Dudung Abdurahman’s stern warning to the FPIs not to disturb the country’s unity. 

A recent survey by the Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting found that 57% of respondents viewed him and his organization negatively, but the 43% with a favorable opinion of the cleric showed he has a loyal following among many conservative Muslims.

Although analysts doubt he will run for public office, the strength of his support suggests he will have a major influence on the outcome of future elections, particularly in West Java, the country’s most populous province. 

During his stay in Saudi Arabia, his living expenses and those of his 13-man entourage were paid for by the Indonesian government. But that didn’t stop him from issuing a stream of videos accusing Widodo of fraudulently winning the 2019 election.

Shihab arrived home pledging to launch a “moral revolution,” ignoring the fact that when he fled the country in mid-2017 it was to avoid the embarrassing charge of engaging in sex-texting with a woman who was not his wife.

In a clear effort to rein in Shihab, new Jakarta police chief Inspector-General Fadil Imran recently hinted at re-opening that and other cases against him, which were dropped months after he arrived in Saudi Arabia.

The cleric made few friends among pandemic-weary Indonesians by inviting 10,000 unmasked people to his daughter’s wedding on November 14, with police obligingly sealing off a downtown Jakarta street to allow room for the celebration.

On December 3, the Health Ministry reported 8,369 new cases across the country, easily topping the highest single-day toll and bringing the total number of patients to 557,877, of which 17,355 have died.  

But officials attributed the sudden spike to a delay in real-time data synchronization between the central government and regional administrations, an explanation why Papua suddenly appeared at the top of the worst-hit provinces with 1,755 new cases, ahead of Jakarta on 1,648.