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November 18, 2020


INDONESIA: The return of a controversial Islamic cleric could change politics

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 5 mins)
  • The firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab could fill the political vacuum in the opposition.
  • Often masking his messages in sanctimonious moralism, Shihab is adept at exploiting social and religious tensions to drive political polarization.
  • Calculations around the 2024 presidential elections could change if his organization, FPI, succeeds in galvanizing opposition to the government.

The controversial cleric Rizieq Shihab returned to Indonesia last week after three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia. Shihab and the organization he founded, the hardline and frequently violent Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), were key players in the alliance that brought down Jakarta governor and administration ally Basuki Purnama in 2017. With President Joko Widodo having effectively co-opted the mainstream opposition, Shihab could take advantage of the political vacuum to galvanize disaffected groups to create a popular opposition to the administration.

Shihab and FPI: A history of driving polarization by catering to conservatives and the disenchanted

Along with 20 other Jakarta ulama, Shihab established FPI in 1998, with the stated goal of having Indonesia formally apply Islamic law to all Muslims. Initially, it was a fringe and street-based vigilante organization that targeted religious minorities and physically attacked or vandalized businesses that it considered immoral or decadent, such as night clubs, cafes, bars, and massage parlors. It drew most of its original followers from the urban poor, but accommodated almost everyone, from the militant and disenchanted to street gangs. FPI had extensive ties to the police and the military from the outset, which allowed it to operate despite the violence that it used, and its volunteer force participated in some anti-terrorism campaigns as recently as 2016. The organization has also supported politicians and parties that agreed to some concessions towards its stated end, but it has avoided entering into formal alliances or participation in elections at either the central or local government level.

However, the blasphemy controversy against Purnama in 2016 allowed Shihab to catapult himself and FPI into national prominence. Disciplined and able to mobilize quickly, the situation was tailored to FPI’s strength, even though the whole anti-Purnama movement was a tactical alliance involving several Islamist organizations. Shihab became the head of its advisory council, and FPI’s white-robed and turbaned members were at its front lines. FPI successfully organized a series of rallies called the Action of Defending Islam. On 2 December 2016, about 800,000 protesters took to the capital in arguably the largest Indonesian history demonstration. In reference to that day, the alliance referred to itself as the “212 Movement.” However, this was slightly optimistic, given that its disparate nature made it unlikely that it could continue to function as a coherent and cohesive organization beyond the removal of its common target. Purnama lost to Anies Baswedan on the back of this groundswell of this religious opposition, and both Shihab and FPI were already seen as potential power brokers for the 2019 elections.

However, the anti-government protests had also alienated Shahib’s allies in the police. Even before the elections, he was already under investigation for allegedly violating the country’s Anti-Pornography Act after salacious WhatsApp conversations with one of his followers leaked; rather than face interrogation and possible arrest, he fled to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. Meanwhile, the 212 Movement also began to dissipate. Nonetheless, the shock from the Jakarta gubernatorial elections resulted in Widodo having to protect his ticket’s Islamic credentials by choosing the cleric Ma’ruf Amin from the country’s largest Muslim social organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), as his running mate.

How he and FPI could alter 2024 calculations

Widodo has co-opted the main nationalist political opposition in Gerindra and his former opponent and now Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto. This gives organizations on the margins such as FPI an opening to cater to the public disenchantment that likely now finds itself underserved by the political opposition’s remains. These groups could include workers who have been at the forefront of the opposition to the omnibus law on job creation or those who have suffered the worst from the pandemic’s economic fallout. Shihab’s high-profile role in the anti-Purnama movement established him as a disruptive political outsider and positions him well to exploit this political vacuum.

For politicians with an eye on the 2024 general elections, the question is whether a political alliance with Shihab outweighs the risks. Both he and FPI are polarizing entities that could pull in a sizable niche of the population. However, the country’s electorate has historically been moderate. An important electoral marker in this regard might occur in 2022. Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan’s term ends that year, but the 2016 Regional-Head Elections Law calls for regional races to be held simultaneously with the national vote in 2024. Proposals have been floated to reinstate the 2022 schedule, which could allow Shihab an entry into formal politics as Baswedan’s running mate should he make that unprecedented jump, or at least test his political clout by backing Baswedan.

As for the presidential election, Shihab’s presence may alter the calculations of potential contenders. In 2018, apprehensive of being blindsided by a religious vote, Widodo chose a candidate strongly affiliated with NU. The 2024 presidential candidates could similarly attempt to burnish their credentials by choosing conservative or well-known Islamic figures and catering to nationalist and religious sentiments, instead of attempting to appeal to a more moderate center and highlighting reforms. Whether Shihab can galvanize disparate fringe groups over the next two into a more cohesive popular opposition will be the key variable, therefore. For this reason, the reunion of 212 alumni on 2 December, when it commemorates events of 2016, will be watched closely, although it could run afoul of pandemic prohibitions.