JAKARTA -- Huge crowds in Jakarta welcomed the return of Indonesian Islamist leader Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, who returned to the country on Tuesday after three years of self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia.
Shihab, who holds great influence over conservative Muslims in Indonesia, led massive rallies in late 2016 that contributed to the downfall of Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama, the then Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta. His homecoming could now lead to a battle among Islamist political parties to receive his backing ahead of the next presidential election in four years.
He arrived at Soekarno-Hatta Airport outside Jakarta onboard a Saudia flight from Jeddah. Thousands of supporters came to greet him at the terminal, with thousands more filling a highway lane outside the airport, restricting access to many passengers and causing flight disruptions and delays.
Many more congregated in the streets outside Shihab's residence in central Jakarta, where the headquarters of his hard-line group, the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, is located. FPI members and supporters clad in white chanted Islamic songs and shouted "Allahu Akbar!" as the car carrying Shihab drove through the crowd.
"To all the Muslim people, let's start today a moral revolution ... that will rescue Indonesia," Shihab said in his address to the crowd. "A moral revolution ... from disobedience to obedience [to Allah], from misdeeds to good deeds. Let's destroy tyranny and fight corruption!"
Shihab was seen playing an instrumental role in gathering hundreds of thousands of Muslims to rally in Jakarta in late 2016 against Ahok for allegedly insulting the Quran. Previously ahead in the polls, Ahok -- a close ally of President Joko Widodo -- lost the Jakarta governor election the next year to Anies Baswedan, who was backed by conservative Muslim groups including the FPI.
Ahok was later convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in jail in May 2017.
Around the same time, Shihab was named a suspect in several cases, including claims he insulted Indonesia's founding principles of Pancasila, and alleged sexting and violation of the country's anti-porn law. Shihab had stayed in Saudi Arabia after going on a pilgrimage to Mecca in April 2017, but became able to return after police reportedly ended investigations against him and cleared him of charges recently.
Prior to the 2016 rallies, Shihab had been seen as nothing more than a firebrand cleric who led the FPI, which had been mostly known for raids against nightclubs and bars during the fasting month of Ramadan.
But the rallies and the outcome of the Jakarta election propelled him to rising prominence, and he became one of the forces behind the growing influence of conservative Muslims over Indonesia's political sphere. His exile in Saudi Arabia also has earned him wider sympathy, with cases against him seen as politicized and inciting a sense of injustice among conservative Muslim communities.
Yon Machmudi, political Islam observer at the University of Indonesia, said some Islamic political parties will likely approach Shihab ahead of Indonesia's national elections in 2024 in order to win Muslim votes.
"Some new Islamic parties... have started speaking about trying to win Habib Rizieq's sympathy so that he will join their party," Machmudi said, referring to Shihab with his better-known nickname.
Machmudi added, however, that although Shihab's supporters and sympathizers are loud and have been growing in numbers, they still don't represent the silent majority in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population. Islamic parties remain a minority in the parliament after national legislative elections last year, with the four biggest parties in the parliament being secularist parties.
"But I think the dynamics [ahead of 2024] will change from the presidential election last year ... now that there is no more attempt to prevent Habib Rizieq from playing active roles [in elections]."
Additional reporting by Bobby Nugroho