Return of the dangerman preacher

Nov 13, 2020

It was a full-on snub to history and a challenge to the social and business reforms of President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo. More worrying is the likelihood of a return to faith-based hate politics in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

November 10 is Indonesia’s Heroes’ Day commemorating the 1945 Battle of Surabaya, a bloody clash in the East Java city between war-hardened allied forces backing the return of the colonial Dutch and young revolutionaries armed with bamboo spears.

But the thousands who gridlocked Jakarta on that day this month cutting off car and bus access to the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and delaying flights for hours were not brave revolutionaries. They were the pliant followers of a Muslim priest with a criminal record who wants to turn our giant neighbour into an Islamic state and away from its two-decade journey towards full democracy.

Rizieq Shihab – self-styled Great Imam for life of the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders’ Front) – returned to his homeland last Tuesday after three years exile in Saudi Arabia. He fled to the kingdom after police alleged offences involving pornography (nude pictures on his cellphone) and insulting Pancasila.

This is the nation’s five-point ideology – religious devotion, humanitarianism, nationalism, consultative democracy, and social justice. Pancasila was devised by first president Soekarno and his colleagues as a foil to zealots demanding an Islamic state. Although taught in schools so all citizens can chant the words, it’s still considered by extremists to be too secular.

The charges have reportedly since been dropped.

Shihab, regularly tagged ‘firebrand’ by the Indonesian media and involved in ‘hatemonger rallies’, told the welcoming mobs ignoring social distancing rules that his objective was ‘to fight with the people for the moral revolution’. This was left undefined. However his real aim is to make mischief which he’ll most likely do in spades.

Earlier he said his mission was fighting the Omnibus Law. This is being heavily promoted by the government and corporates as red-tape shredding legislation to create jobs and attract foreign investors. It also reduces some green-tape environment protections to speed developments. Although the law has been passed, fist-shaking continues outside government buildings ringed by barbed wire.

Overseas businesspeople watching the FPI’s kerb-to-kerb whitecapped herds crippling the capital might well reconsider plans to put their money into Indonesia. The Republic suddenly appears heading for division after some earlier clever quelling of disunity following last year’s presidential election.

Before the return of the demagogue, the usually peaceful demos against the new law were running out of energy. The placard-waving students and unionists were also leaderless. Shihab has refuelled their tanks by stirring religion into an industrial relations row largely concerned with the cropping of employees’ rights so bosses can make hiring and firing easier.

The father of seven and son of an Arab-Indonesian family, Shihab, 55, studied in Malaysia before working as a teacher in a madrasah (Islamic boarding school). He created the FPI in 1998, the year when second president Soeharto was felled by student riots after 32 years in power.

Members formed vigilante gangs, notorious for their ‘sweeping’ of hotels during the holy month of Ramadan, seeking people allegedly breaking Islamic laws on dress and behaviour. They also trashed and firebombed businesses they claimed were offending religious norms. Targets were often ethnic Chinese.

In 2003 Shihab was jailed for seven months for inciting violence. In 2008 he was convicted on a similar charge and put behind bars for 18 months. Being labelled a criminal burnished his credentials among his troops and enlarged his status.

The FPI’s biggest triumph came in December 2017 when he led a half-million strong protest again the Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta. Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama was accused of blasphemy – and later jailed for two years.

Shihab claimed he then went to Mecca as a pilgrim and could not return because he’d been ‘exiled’ by the government. The charge was denied although it’s clear the administration wanted him out of the way during last year’s presidential election campaign.

Shihab supported Widodo’s rival, former general Prabowo Subianto, now the Minister for Defence. The surprise invitation to join the ministry neutered much opposition to the government and gave Subianto the chance to busy himself on arms-buying sprees abroad while Widodo concentrated on domestic affairs.

That was before the pandemic which has so far infected 444,000 and killed almost 15,000, though these figures are widely believed to be under-estimates. With the country in recession, there’s nothing in the kitty to purchase bang-bangs, so the ambitious billionaire Prabowo has nowhere to go and little to do.

Whether he’s prepared to side with Shihab again in the hope of contesting the presidency in 2024 when he’ll be 73 – or even scheming to dethrone the president – is the worry that’s now returned with the preacher.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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