Thousands Welcome Scandal-Ridden Islamist Cleric Back to Indonesia

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab lived in Saudi Arabia for three years after fleeing pornography charges.
November 10, 2020, 8:22am
Indonesia
Supporters of Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Indonesian hardline organisation FPI (Front Pembela Islam or Islamic Defenders Front), gather at the Jakarta International Airport on Nov. 10, 2020, to welcome their leader from Saudi Arabia. Photo: Fajrin Raharjo / AFP

Brushing off coronavirus fears, thousands packed the arrivals section of Indonesia's main international airport on Tuesday to welcome back a controversial Islamist cleric who fled the Muslim-majority country in 2017 after facing charges of pornography.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, better known as Habib Rizieq, arrived at the airport on the outskirts of Jakarta in the morning after flying from Saudi Arabia where he has lived for the past three years.

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Shouting "Allahu Akbar" through a megaphone, Rizieq was greeted by enthusiastic supporters carrying signs with his image and straining to see the founder of the conservative Islamic Defenders Front, which led a vigorous campaign against the former Christian governor of Jakarta in 2017 that saw him jailed for insulting Islam.

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Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Indonesian hardline organisation FPI (Front Pembela Islam or Islamic Defenders Front), speaks to supporters gathered at the Jakarta International Airport on Nov. 10, 2020, following his return from Saudi Arabia. Photo: Fajrin Raharjo / AFP

Cars of supporters were also seen parked on the toll road to the airport, snarling traffic in the area.

Indonesia has one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia, but that did not stop people from coming out for Rizieq, who previously did jail time for inciting violence in 2008.

In 2017, Rizieq fled the country after a bizarre scandal emerged alleging the firebrand moralist exchanged sexually explicit Whatsapp messages with a woman who was not his wife.

He denied the allegations but was later charged with pornography. He also faced separate charges related to comments about Indonesia's founding state ideology pancasila, which advocates national unity.

The charges against him were dropped, paving the way for his eventual return.

Indonesians have become increasingly divided since the rise of Islamist groups in recent years. Though the country is the most populous Muslim nation in the world, it practices a more relaxed form of Islam. The same year that Rizieq fled the country, Indonesia banned the hardline Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir.