Missteps in Confronting Rizieq
SCUPPERING away from Indonesia as a criminal suspect, Muhammad Rizieq bin Hussein Shihab returned on Tuesday, November 10, lauded like a homecoming hero.
Rizieq’s escalated political presence cannot be separated from erroneous government strategizing in confronting the illiberal and intolerant provocation this front man of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) displays.
To his followers, Rizieq’s three years and seven months as fugitive in Saudi Arabia fortified what he represents to these masses. He is the new political magnet. Tens of thousands flocked to the Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Banten to welcome him home. Security apparatus failed to anticipate the fuss such a crowd could make just to welcome Rizieq. The general public was totally disadvantaged as access to the airport was crippled for several hours.
The government admitted to having only dispatched surface security to avoid appearing confrontational. Several officials even stated that Rizieq’s return would calm down Indonesia’s political waters. These were outrageous statements. Rizieq’s heightened bargaining position now that he is back in Jakarta will instead be aggravating to the government and will trigger new agitations.
Since his first appearance on the Indonesian political stage, Rizieq was nursed and nurtured by the ambiguity of our politics and laws. When he founded the FPI in August 1998, it is common knowledge that several high-ranking police and military personnel were involved. In the days when President Suharto and the New Order regime had just toppled, several documents were later unearthed that revealed all manner of power play and political maneuvering by certain elites in the military and the police force made good use of the FPI.
Years passed, governments changed, and it seemed the FPI was given free rein to continue widening its network. FPI’s military arm which it named the Islam Defenders Force were allowed to raid places they dubbed as “sources of evil.” In all-white military-cut uniforms, the troops became an effective pressure group for all manner of things. It was only in June 2008, when the FPI attacked a peaceful picket by the Citizens Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Faith at the National Monument Park in Central Jakarta, did the police take them into hand. Rizieq Shihab was slammed in jail for a year and a half.
Unfortunately, the government’s legal take on the FPI was curtailed. Under President Joko Widodo, the government’s strategy instead was to make political overtures. The police gave up when Rizieq, together with the National Movement to Safeguard MUI Edicts (the MUI being the Indonesian Ulema Council, a quasi-government organization dealing in all things Islamic) forced the government’s hand to arrest the then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a.k.a. Ahok, with the accusation of defaming Islam. The Attorney General’s Office even presented Rizieq as an expert witness in Basuki’s court case. After Basuki was sentenced two years imprisonment, in the name of keeping things balanced, the police then went after Rizieq for committing several crimes.
When the law moves in the name of politics, absurd things happen. Rizieq was targetted for seven separate cases, from alleged inappropriate taped conversation, defamation of Pancasila (the State Principles), hate-mongering, to insult towards certain ethnic groupings. Yet, one month after being declared a suspect in the Pancasila defamation case, on April 2017, Rizieq was ‘allowed’ to flee to Saudi Arabia.
It is evident the police never tried to chase after the 55-year-old man. Intelligence apparatus and an array of politicians one by one went and held meetings with him in Mecca, and not a single one dragged him home. One year later, on June 2018, the police halted investigation on Rizieq with the excuse of lack of evidence. It is resoundingly clear: the law had been put in gear for political purposes.
Rizieq found his stage when the government acted of two minds. On the one hand, the government campaigned about pluralism, their efforts to halt intolerance and Islamic radicalism. Yet on the other hand, the government was inconsistent about using the law in many cases of intolerance. In the name of political balance and accommodation, President Jokowi even selected Ma’ruf Amin, a central figure in the movement to criminalize Basuki, as his vice president, and allowed the police to discontinue Rizieq’s case.
This political two-facedness indirectly fertilized intolerance—something that Jokowi and his cabinet vow to combat—and at the same time increased Rizieq’s popularity.
Combating illiberal sensibilities under guise of populist religion needs clear-cut official policy. The bedrock should be equality of all before the law and respect towards the principles of human rights. Political games by the government and its fudging around the law is at best counterproductive because it opens up sympathy towards figures like Rizieq. The high-rating popularity of Rizieq today is the price the Jokowi government is now paying.