Habib Rizieq and Hardline Islamist Groups: Losing Steam
Facing a sentence that will see him behind bars till 2025, radical cleric Habib Rizieq Shihab will face problems bouncing back from the political wilderness. His enforced absence from the political scene will be a boon to secular and nationalist presidential candidates.
On 24 June, firebrand cleric Habib Rizieq Shihab was sentenced to four years in jail by the East Jakarta District Court for falsifying information regarding his health status despite contracting the Covid-19 virus. Earlier, the same court sentenced him to eight months in jail and fined him 20 million rupiahs (S$1,858) in two separate cases for breaching the quarantine law in relation to two mass events, including his daughter’s wedding held in Central Jakarta last year, which thousands attended. This is not the first time the leader of the banned Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) has been charged and convicted in a court of law. He was briefly jailed twice for defamation and incitement of violence in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
However, the recent successive verdicts against Rizieq are unprecedented. This is probably the first time in Indonesia’s history that an individual who received various criminal charges by the police was consecutively given multiple jail and fine sentences. The verdict lends credibility to the Indonesian court system, which has proven at times to be relatively independent (and despite the fact that the police and prosecutors are seen to be under the control of President Joko Widodo). Rizieq was targeted after leading a series of massive protests between 2016 and 2017 that led to the imprisonment of former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) for blasphemy charges, as well as his defeat in the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Election. His political manoeuvres struck a nerve among state and government officials. They were concerned that the alliance between different fringe Muslim groups such as the FPI and some members of mainstream moderate Muslim organisations could be institutionalised in the future. This would affect the president’s secular-nationalist camp and deepen fissures in the country’s Islamic community. In effect, the slew of charges against Rizieq is widely seen as a sophisticated attack coordinated by elements in the Joko Widodo administration.
Rizieq’s imprisonment will also adversely affect any presidential candidate, such as Anies Baswedan, who is banking on Islamists’ support.
Although Rizieq was able to bounce back after his previous jail terms, it will take some time for him to engineer a political revival following the recent verdicts. This is especially so as the government had banned FPI in December 2020. This knocked the wind out of the cleric’s sails, causing Rizieq to lose his political clout. In addition, Rizieq also lost potential social and political support from other Islamist groups who have been facing political pressures from the Joko Widodo administration. Between 2017 and 2019, several prominent activists and Islamist figures who often served as Rizieq’s allies were named suspects for various cases. More importantly, the Joko Widodo administration is too powerful for Rizieq and his Islamist supporters to challenge. The president firmly controls state institutions that are responsible for enforcing laws and managing security affairs, such as the Indonesian police, Attorney General’s Office, and the Indonesian military. He has earned support from Indonesian oligarchs and politicians who control 75 per cent of votes in the House of Representatives.
Despite the setbacks, Rizieq remains a popular figure. On the day of the verdict, hundreds of his supporters turned up at the court, though they were later arrested after clashing with the police. However, his social and political influence is expected to decline as he continues to stay behind bars. His absence from the Indonesian political scene due to his self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia had already led to a decline in his influence. A 2018 survey by the Indonesia Survey Circle (LSI) found that Rizieq’s influence decreased between December 2016 and October 2018. Among others, his alleged involvement in legal issues was cited as a reason for his declining influence. The survey also found that 31.4 per cent of respondents behaved in accordance with his speeches and sermons in December 2016, but only 17 per cent continued to do so in October 2018. Rizieq’s influence declined despite his bids to influence the country’s social and political events through speeches transmitted via online platforms. However, behind bars, he will not have such privilege. This means his social and political influence will only decline further.
Rizieq’s imprisonment will also adversely affect any presidential candidate, such as Anies Baswedan, who is banking on Islamists’ support. Rizieq is a combative and persuasive orator. He often rode on anti-establishment sentiments and populist issues such as socio-economic discrimination, which resonated well among poor Muslims in Indonesia’s sprawling conurbations. He also exploited identity issues to win support from members of conservative Islamist groups. Altogether, these factors would have made him an effective Islamist vote winner in the run-up to the 2024 Presidential Election. However, his absence from the political scene until the end of the election will become a boon for the secular, nationalist presidential candidates such as Prabowo Subianto and Ganjar Pranowo.
His absence will also have consequences for the FPI, which has since changed its name to Front Persaudaraan Islam (Islamic Brotherhood Front). Rizieq has been an icon of the organisation, and his appearance has attracted a substantial number of followers. Given his prison sentences and the fact that many FPI leaders currently face legal charges or are also behind bars, it is expected that the organisation will have less online and offline public presence until his release in the next few years. Rizieq and his lawyers will be contesting the court verdicts, but the legal process could take months or years. The verdict, if not overturned, would mean that he will be imprisoned until 2025. So long as the current political structure under Joko Widodo remains intact, it will still be a long and windy road for Rizieq to bounce back from his current political plight.
A'an Suryana is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.
Nur Syafiqah Mohd Taufek is a master’s student in the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore.