Hardline Muslim cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab returned to Indonesia on Tuesday after three years in Saudi Arabia, where he extended his stay after police in his home country issued an arrest warrant on charges that have since been dropped.
The founder of the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) shouted “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”) as thousands of his supporters greeted him upon his arrival at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. Later, he urged them to begin a “moral revolution” and fight corruption.
“To all Muslims, the moral revolution begins today. Those who are not devout must now be devout. Do you agree?” Rizieq said during a speech at his house in Central Jakarta, to which his supporters shouted back, “agree.”
“Move from bad deeds to good deeds. We will destroy all injustice. We will fight corruption,” Rizieq said.
The cleric, who has been a vocal critic of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo government, had denied that he sent lewd images to a woman or insulted Pancasila, the Indonesian state philosophy.
Rizieq said police had targeted him for criticizing the government, but the authorities had said they had evidence to back up their charges.
Political analysts told BenarNews that Rizieq’s return may catalyze the opposition because they will seek common cause with the cleric’s anti-government position.
Additionally, the FPI leader who defends sharia law could also cause some upheaval in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, whose second-term president is largely viewed as being secular.
On Tuesday, Rizieq said “reconciliation” with the government was possible but only if it didn’t undermine people’s religion.
“I’ll say this once again: Reconciliation can only happen when there is good faith. But if reconciliation is based on tyranny, it will not be possible,” Rizieq told the FPI YouTube channel.
“But if they create regulations that undermine the people and religion and destroy morality, it is our obligation to fight them.”
Rizieq has kept insisting that he couldn’t return to Indonesia after the charges against him were dropped in 2018, saying the government had blocked his return.
The government denied his accusation earlier this week, saying that Rizieq may have violated his residence permit in Saudi Arabia.
In a statement on Monday, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Mohammad Mahfud MD, said the government had never prevented Rizieq from returning.
“He has the right to return because he is an Indonesian citizen whose rights must be protected,” Mahfud MD said.
‘Test for Jokowi’
Rizieq’s return will be a political test for President Jokowi, said Ujang Komarudin, a political analyst at Al Azhar University in Jakarta.
Through his first term, Jokowi had voiced a commitment to pluralism. Yet, in 2018, he picked Ma’ruf Amin , a senior Muslim cleric, as his running mate for the election a year later, a move that many saw as an attempt to bolster his religious credentials amid accusations by conservatives that Jokowi was not Islamic enough.
After all, his rival for the presidency in both the 2014 and 2019 general election, Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, had garnered the support of a host of ultra-conservative preachers as well as of Rizieq.
Jokowi was reelected for a second term last year, but this jockeying for the support of conservative Islamic leaders exposed social and religious divides in Southeast Asia’s largest country.
He made Prabowo his defense minister, but now, with Rizieq’s return, the opposition has a chance to rally again, according to analysts.
“His return has created an opportunity for major consolidation in the non-parliamentary opposition camp,” Al Azhar University’s Ujang told BenarNews.
Rizieq’s homecoming will heat up politics in Indonesia, said Hendri Satrio, a political analyst at Paramadina University in Jakarta.
“Rizieq's return is not something ordinary. The temperature of the socio-political climate will rise in the future,” Hendri told the TVOne broadcaster.
The cleric has significantly influenced the political climate in Indonesia before, most notably in in the 2017 ouster of then-Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
In 2016 and 2017, the FPI founder led a campaign against Ahok, a Christian man of Chinese descent, over allegations that he had insulted the Quran, after an edited video made it appear that he had said Islam’s holy book deceived people.
This spurred hundreds of thousands of Muslims to hold protests against him in the run-up to a gubernatorial election in Jakarta, in which he was a front-runner.
Ahok lost the 2017 race to Anies Baswedan, a Muslim intellectual and former education minister, who courted the support of FPI and other conservative Muslim groups despite his liberal credentials.
Ahok was later sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly blaspheming Islam, in a case that drew international attention around the emerging influence of fundamentalism on Indonesian politics.
Several brushes with the law
Meanwhile, Rizieq and FPI have had several brushes with the law over the years.
Complaints have been lodged against him and FPI members for vandalizing bars and entertainment spots because they allegedly served serving alcohol during Ramadan, or because members thought they allowed in drug dealers and prostitutes.
In 2003, Rizieq was sentenced to seven months in prison for raids on nightspots and vandalism by FPI members.
In 2008, he was jailed for 18 months after being found guilty of inciting FPI members to assault protesters from the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Beliefs.
Rizieq’s attorney, Sugito Atmo Prawiro, told BenarNews that his client no longer had any legal problems.
“In other cases, he is only a witness,” Sugito told BenarNews.
Brig. Gen. Awi Setyono, the spokesman for national police, declined to comment on Rizieq’s return and any pending legal cases against the cleric.