By: Our Correspondent

Under pressure from a government increasingly determined to stem the rise of violent Islamist rhetoric and action, the alumni of the forces that ended the political career of former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama are rallying behind the man who defeated him in 2016 and fighting to bring home a disgraced cleric in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Calling themselves the 212 Alumni Brotherhood (PA 212), for the December 2, 2016 date they first came together, thousands of followers have rallied three years later – yesterday — in the heart of Jakarta, chanting “President, President, President” as Anies Baswedan, the current Jakarta governor and Basuki’s nemesis walked to the stage.

In December of 2016, Basuki, an ethnic Chinese Christian known universally as Ahok, was running for reelection against two other candidates including Baswedan, an academic and activist who was supported by the Islamist group generated by the thuggish Islamic Defenders Front and the radical Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI).

The mass rallies during a tumultuous election campaign ended with Ahok sentenced to two years in prison in a trial for blasphemy against the Quran and losing his bid for another term as governor. Many described the election as Indonesia’s most polarizing amid deepening concern that Ahok’s loss would encourage the use of religion as a political tool in Indonesian elections.

The reunion committee that organized this year’s event claimed it would be free of political elements but reality on the ground proved otherwise. The thousands of participants flocking at the National Monument in the center of Jakarta showed support for Anies’s possible presidential run in 2024. Polling by several survey institutions projects Anies as a strong candidate. 

The participants at the rally demanded that police investigate alleged blasphemy by Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, sister of the chairman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) Megawati. In a seminar in November, Sukmawati reportedly asked the audience who was the most credible figure in Indonesian independence between the Prophet Muhammad and former President Sukarno, her father and the country’s founding president. Sukmawati’s statement was regarded as an insult to the prophet.

“Someone compared the apostle with his father. She thinks his father was better,” said Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front in a teleconference call from Saudi Arabia, where he is in exile after fleeing charges brought against him under the 2006 Anti-Pornography Act, a law he helped pass. “In the case of blasphemy insulting Allah, the Apostle, and the Qur’an, we call on all Muslims to urge the police to prosecute the perpetrator because Indonesia is a state of law.” 

In 2018, Sukmawati was also reported for a poem entitled ‘Indonesian Mother’, in which she compared the call to prayer (azan) to the hymn and the niqab to the bun, but the case was stopped.

Megawati at the PDI-P’s annual conference in Bali in August served notice that growing Islamic fundamentalism would be curbed in the country The message from the stage was followed up later by cabinet appointments made in October by President Joko Widodo, who pointedly replaced a Muslim cleric in the religious ministry with a former general, Fakhrul Razi. The Ministry of Education and Culture was also taken away from Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest Islamic organization, which has actively shaped politics and education for decades, and handed to Nadiem Makarim, the western-educated founder of the popular ride-hailing company Go-Jek, one of the country’s most popular startups.

The Health Ministry was handed to another former general, Terawan Agus Putranto, a military doctor and radiologist by profession. Former National Police Chief Tito Karnavian, once the chief of police in Papua and known to have extensive knowledge related to terrorism, was named interior minister.

Brought into the fold by Megawati as well was Prabowo Subianto, who lost to Jokowi in the May general election, courting Islamists in his bid for the presidency. But Prabowo, a member of one of Indonesia’s oldest aristocratic families, is widely regarded to have taken on Islamic trappings as a marriage of convenience in his election. His appointment as defense minister appears to have put paid to his religious dalliance.

The government has refused to issue an extension letter to the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD said the permit would not be issued because there was “a problem”. Although Mahfud did not elaborate, it is suspected that the government has ruled that basic rules that govern the FPI are not in accordance with state principles. The group advocates making Indonesia a state based on Islamic law, which is in opposition to the concept of Pancasila, enshrined in the Constitution.

Government also officially appointed Ahok last week as President Commissioner of Pertamina’s state energy company, which is regarded as a clue to the wider commitment to rein in growing Islamists.

The Conflict Between Rizieq and the Government

The rally was also intended as an effort to pressure the government to allow Rizieq’s return from exile in Saudi Arabia. He left Indonesia with his family in April 2017 after being named as a suspect in a pornography chat conversation case. Rizieq reportedly has been fined by the Saudi Arabian government for overstaying. He wants to return to Indonesia but has been banned. He claims to have reported the problem to representatives of the Indonesian government in Saudi but there was no follow up. 

In his speech, Rizieq accused the Indonesian government of being behind the ban. “I am still banned by the Government of Saudi Arabia for security reasons, at the request of the Government of Indonesia,” Rizieq said, although Mahfud denied Rizieq’s accusation that the government had asked the Saudis to ban him.

“No need to do public lies because no matter how hard we try to cover up the carcass, it will still smell,” Rizieq said.

Slamet Maarif, the chairman of the 212 group, said it would seek to repatriate Rizieq without expecting help from anyone including Prabowo, whose sought the group’s support in the presidential election in April. Prabowo finally joined the government as Minister of Defense, disappointing the group, which has ended its cooperation with his coalition.

PA 212 are now close to the Islamic party Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which has expressly declared itself to be in opposition along with the Party of Work led by Tommy Suharto. PKS leaders and Tommy recently held a meeting to strengthen their position, although many see this as their preparation for 2020 local elections, and that the PKS brought on Tommy, the enormously wealthy son of the late strongman Suharto, to secure funding for their presidential candidates in 2024.

“We have never hoped for anyone who is affiliated with or supports the present ruler (government). We will work on our own ability,” Slamet said, threatening that if the ban on Rizieq isn’t revoked they would mobilize the masses as they did in 2016-2017 against Ahok. 

Political observer from Al-Azhar Indonesia University Ujang Komarudin argued that Prabowo’s joining the government has seriously hampered the 212 group’s impact, which wasn’t as strong as previous ones. There is no political momentum to move them as in 2016 ahead of the Jakarta governor’s election, and in 2018 ahead of the presidential election.

“But later when there are regional, legislative and presidential elections, they will become a calculated political force. These political moments are important for the 212 movement,” Ujang said. The 212 alumni, he added, will continue to maintain their existence as a non-parliamentary pressure group, continuing to hold reunions to maintain their existence in the political arena given their potential as a base for political mass.

“When Prabowo joined the Jokowi government, they had to fight alone to repatriate Rizieq,” He said. “In my opinion, the 212 struggle is not yet complete, and therefore they will not disperse.”