Electoral Politics Behind Rizieq
The return of Muhammad Rizieq bin Hussein Shihab two weeks ago was like opening Pandora’s box.
AFTER the state seems to vanished and the government looks like a loser, now officials in the center and the regions busied themselves passing the blame and trying to save face. Identity politics has heated up again and will continue to fester until the 2024 elections.
The problem began when the homecoming of the founder of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) was welcomed by tens of thousands of his followers at the airport. Two days later, Rizieq held a meeting at his Islamic boarding school in Puncak, Bogor, West Java. After that there was an event to mark the Prophet’s birth and a wedding reception for Rizieq’s daughter attended by thousands of guests. In all these events, the Covid-19 health protocols were ignored.
There were no attempts at mitigation. Not a single official anticipated the crowds that flocked to Soekarno-Hatta airport. In Puncak and Petamburan, West Jakarta—the location of Rizieq’s home—the security forces, the Covid-19 task force and the local government turned a blind eye. Separately, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan even visited Rizieq at home.
After all this already happened, the government rushed to take measures to avoid accusations of inaction. National Police (Polri) Chief Gen. Idham Azis, wearing the battle uniform of the Police Mobile Brigade, gave a barely adequate speech in which he asked the public to wear masks and wash their hands. Commander of the Indonesian Military Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto reminded the public to preserve unity and integrity—without once mentioning Rizieq’s name.
Meanwhile, Polri carried out a large-scale reorganization of posts. Wishing to give the impression of upholding the law, the Polri chief sought ‘sacrifices’ by firing the greater Jakarta and West Java police chiefs along with their subordinates seen as bearing responsibility. Meanwhile the Jakarta administration satisfied itself by imposing a fine on the family of Rizieq—something that was easily paid by the host. The Jayakarta Military Area Command commander deployed armored vehicles and troops to remove Rizieq’s banners.
The origin of all this fuss is the government’s ambiguous stance towards Rizieq and the FPI. In 2017, the government gave in to Rizieq’s demand for the prosecution of the then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy. At the same time, the government also pursued prosecution for private matters such as indecent chats to damage the credibility of the grand ‘imam’.
When Rizieq left for Saudi Arabia, nobody could confirm whether it was true that he left and settled there without intervention from the state. It later came to light that officials from the National Intelligence Agency and Polri repeatedly met with him. On a local level, Rizieq did Anies Baswedan a favor in the gubernatorial election of three years ago. This is what strongly suspected to have made Anies—who is beginning to be spoken of as a presidential candidate for 2024—unable to take firm action.
In the midst of this timidity from the government, Rizieq came home with his head held high. There is no law to prevent him from coming home, and the police have already halted all of the investigations involving him.
The government, which has lost credibility in its handling of the pandemic, is nervous in the face of these events. The move by the police to question the Jakarta governor and other officials because of the crowds at Puncak and Petamburan is considered not to be motivated by the desire to uphold the law, but is part of political games for short-term interests. The threat by Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian to dismiss regional heads who do not implement health protocols is seen in the same light.
It is difficult to imagine the police being willing to investigate the alleged wrongdoings of Rizieq and the FPI. What will happen once again is law enforcement for political interests. On the other hand, there are the statements from senior military officers about this case that trigger new concerns about the politicization of the military—something this country has abandoned a long ago with the end of the New Order era.
Therefore, more than simply creating potentially new Covid-19 clusters, the return of Rizieq has bigger repercussion for our country. It has rekindled identity politics, the seeds of which were sown in 2014. The growing strength of Rizieq and religious populism also provides an opportunity for increased nationalist populism. This is worrying. Indonesian democracy, which has been in decline over the last year, will continue to weaken. Minority groups at the grassroots and civil rights movements will come under pressure.
Jokowi, Anies Baswedan and other individuals have played their political cards—opposing illiberal actions with other illiberal actions—while ignoring the people who need protection from the danger of the pandemic.