Rizieq Shihab jailed for violating anti-COVID-19 rules
by Ati Nurbaiti

The Islamist leader returned on 10 November from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia after being charged with “pornography” at home. He was taken into custody, seemingly for failing to respect anti-coronavirus regulations at his daughter's wedding. Tensions are growing with the government, which, however, is trying to avoid confrontation.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Rizieq Shihab, the controversial leader of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), began a 20-day police detention yesterday for violating anti-coronavirus health protocols.

After the authorities failed to detain him on other charges, Shihab was arrested amid great tensions following the death of six of his followers killed on 7 December in an alleged shootout with police near the capital.

As investigation continues, police claim the men were armed and shot in self-defence, while the FPI denies that its members were armed.

Among some Indonesians, the incident has set off alarm bells. Many of them view the FPI as a morality vigilante group, more of a nuisance than a heavily armed militia.

However, the incident also highlights the polarisation between government critics and people who view more favourably President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his administration.

Human rights lawyers see the FPI as extremist group. A petition on change.org is calling for its ban, collecting so far more than 86,000 signatures. Despite this, the killing of six members of the Islamist organisation is seen by rights activists as an “extrajudicial” killing.

Shihab, champion of the radical “war” against the former Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, went to Saudi Arabia in 2017 in self-imposed exile after he was charged with pornography and being anti-Pancasila, Indonesia’s five foundational philosophical principles.

A large crowd greeted him when he returned to Indonesia on 10 November to attend his daughter's wedding where, according to the authorities, anti-COVID-19 regulations were not respected. The Islamist leader rejects the accusation, deemed unwarranted by his lawyers.

The Indonesian Ulema Council also questioned Shihab’s arrest, noting that many public officials also violated the rules by taking part in public gatherings associated, for example, with last week’s 270 local elections, increasing the risk of contagion.

For many Islamic groups, the different treatment reserved for Shihab could cause “unrest” in the population.

This has not however stopped the government from banning Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a group that openly aspires to establish an Islamic state, but with a much lower profile than the FPI.

Conversely, several observers note that the authorities are trying to avoid an open confrontation with Shihab, who has support among both majority and opposition parties; for example, shortly after his return from Saudi Arabia, he met with Anies Baswedan, Ahok's successor as governor of Jakarta.