After over three years of exile in Saudi Arabia to avoid criminal charges, Muhammed Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI), made a public return to Indonesia on 10 November. Welcomed by over fifty thousand of his loyal followers at the Jakarta airport, Rizieq’s return was the cause of traffic jams, flight delays and controversies for disregarding health protocols.
Frequently described as a firebrand cleric, Rizieq is an influential figure in Indonesia and his organisation has played a significant role in numerous protests, including the 212 Action rally held in December 2016 which drew hundreds of thousands of supporters. As well as having the support of the wider public, Rizieq frequently rubs shoulders with the political élite. Just hours after he returned, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan paid a visit to Rizieq, in a meeting which was described as friends just ‘catching up’.
Rizieq’s political views are generally hardline and he frequently makes controversial comments that have brought criticism from more moderate groups in Indonesia. His most recent comments on blasphemy, in the context of the beheading in France of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, were described as “divisive” and “hateful” by other influential Muslim groups.
While some of Rizieq’s more controversial comments may sit uncomfortably in Canberra, of greater concern are the direct implications that it can have for Australia. An example of that was seen when Canberra recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As well as facing a strong reaction from the Indonesian Government itself, the FPI also called on Indonesians to boycott Australian products. Given Rizieq’s relationships with those in power, such calls can bear significant weight.
More broadly, a weak point in the Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship is the lack of people-to-people relations and a significant divide in cultural understanding. The influence of FPI and its push to politicise Islam threatens to deepen that divide. In Australia, there is a striking lack of knowledge about Indonesia and its people beyond Bali. When the Australian media reports such development as when the FPI helped to topple Christian-Chinese governor Ahok, or publicises controversial comments made by hardline groups such as the FPI, the understanding of Indonesia in this country risks becoming one-dimensional.
On the other hand, as the FPI continues to push Indonesians to embrace a highly politicised form of Islam, their view of Australia also risks deteriorating. Media reports of alleged Islamophobia and some foreign policy decisions by Australia could reinforce perceptions that Australia is vehemently anti-Islam and, therefore, a threat rather than an ally.
While, in the grand scheme of things, the FPI is only one out of many influential groups in Indonesia, the Australian Government should be wary of its potential to deepen the cultural divide between the two countries. Without strong initiatives to expand people-to-people relations and counterbalance the negative perceptions of each other, the bilateral relationship will continue to be rocky and unpredictable.