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He left Indonesia three and a half years in the past beneath a cloud of infamy that included a pornography cost and accusations of an extramarital affair. He returned from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia final month and was greeted like a conquering hero.

The fiery Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab has focused Indonesia’s secular democracy for many years, utilizing his vigilante group, the Islamic Defenders Entrance, to vandalize bars, persecute rival sects and assault homosexual and lesbian occasions. Now Mr. Rizieq is looking for a renewed “ethical revolution” to push Indonesia towards a extra conservative imaginative and prescient of Islam.

He has emerged as President Joko Widodo’s most formidable foe, with an influential base of tens of 1000’s of followers demanding political change. His supporters say he’s defending Islam in a Muslim-majority nation run by corrupt, amoral leaders. His detractors say he’s an instigator who’s spreading each hate and the coronavirus.

“He’s a thug,” mentioned Jajang Jahroni, a lecturer at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State College, Jakarta, who wrote a e-book about Mr. Rizieq. “His rhetoric is actually shallow. I don’t perceive why so many individuals are impressed. Whenever you hear, he’s making an attempt solely to be provocative.”

Mr. Rizieq’s return comes as Mr. Joko is battling the quickly spreading coronavirus, which has pushed Indonesia into recession for the primary time for the reason that late Nineties. The nation has reported greater than 17,000 Covid-19 deaths, the very best toll in Southeast Asia.

When the Saudi-educated cleric arrived at Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta, the capital, on Nov. 10, tens of 1000’s of supporters defied coronavirus restrictions to welcome him, clogging the principle freeway and forcing the delay or cancellation of dozens of flights. Days later, Mr. Rizieq invited 10,000 visitors to his daughter’s wedding ceremony. Two high-ranking police chiefs have been fired for not making certain that well being protocols have been adopted on the occasion.

For Mr. Rizieq, 55, flouting guidelines and creating controversy are second nature.

In 1998, he co-founded the Islamic Defenders Entrance, or F.P.I., as a civilian militia with the backing of the military to assist preserve management after Suharto, Indonesia’s long-reigning army dictator, stepped down. Since then, the nation has grown more and more conservative, partially due to stress from Mr. Rizieq’s group.

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4 years in the past, the F.P.I. entered the electoral fray when it performed a key position in ousting Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Mr. Basuki, a Christian and an ally of Mr. Joko, made a remark concerning the Quran that was later edited in a video to look as if he had mentioned the holy e-book had misled Muslims.

The video went viral, and F.P.I. organized rallies to oppose Mr. Basuki. He was voted out of workplace, convicted of blasphemy and served almost two years in jail.

Shortly after that election, sexually express textual content messages emerged, purportedly between Mr. Rizieq and a lady who was not his spouse. The police filed a pornography cost towards him beneath a regulation that Mr. Rizieq himself had pushed to enact. He fled to Saudi Arabia whereas he and his supporters claimed the messages have been faux and that he had been framed.

The cost was dropped in 2018 for lack of proof, the police mentioned on the time. Mr. Rizieq was scheduled to be deported from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 11, in response to a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh. He left the day earlier than the deadline.

“He’s a very polarizing determine in Indonesia,” mentioned Ian Wilson, a senior lecturer at Murdoch College in Perth, Australia, who hung out with Mr. Rizieq in his early years and watched F.P.I. evolve from a militia outfit right into a social and political motion.

“Now could be their time within the solar,” he mentioned. “They’ve been utilizing demonstrations and stirring up issues for 20 years and managed to maneuver from being a peripheral vigilante group into a big political pressure.”

The F.P.I. has lengthy seen its mission as upholding Islamic, or Shariah, regulation. It doesn’t publicize its membership numbers, however analysts estimate that tons of of 1000’s of Indonesians belong to the group. Even so, it’s dwarfed by the nation’s large Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which collectively have roughly 141 million members.

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“F.P.I. is about being loud and divisive and creating spectacles,” Mr. Wilson mentioned. “That’s how they’ve been capable of punch above their weight.”

In his sermons, which are sometimes laced with humor, coarse language and venomous tirades, Mr. Rizieq argues that Indonesia must be united beneath one God, and that since Muslims are the overwhelming majority, they need to have the facility to set guidelines for minority teams and implement Shariah regulation.

Since his return, Mr. Rizieq has held half a dozen giant, crowded occasions, together with the marriage, and pledged to go to each Indonesian province in his marketing campaign for a “ethical revolution.” In response, Lt. Gen. Doni Monardo of the Indonesian Military, who heads the nationwide coronavirus process pressure, known as on native officers to ban any occasions that might draw crowds in violation of well being protocols.

Mr. Rizieq has averted obligatory authorities testing twice, at one level taking refuge in a non-public Islamic hospital. The F.P.I. says his personal check was destructive. However the authorities mentioned at the least 100 individuals who attended his latest occasions had examined constructive for the coronavirus.

Well being dangers and admonitions haven’t appeared to discourage Mr. Rizieq.

A few of his latest inflammatory remarks have as soon as once more hinted at violence. At an occasion in East Jakarta, he warned that beheadings just like the vicious homicide of a schoolteacher in France might occur in Indonesia if the police didn’t pursue accused blasphemers.

“If they aren’t investigated, don’t blame Muslims if their heads are discovered on the road tomorrow,” he mentioned as his viewers cheered.

At one other occasion, he accused Mr. Joko and his authorities of main the nation right into a disaster as a result of the leaders lacked morals. In his view, being an ethical particular person means following Shariah regulation.

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Indonesia permits Aceh Province, within the northwest, to make use of Shariah regulation, together with caning offenders for adultery, theft or playing. Underneath stress from teams like F.P.I., native governments in different provinces have adopted greater than 400 legal guidelines that implement some features of Shariah regulation, akin to requiring girls to put on head scarves.

Mr. Rizieq claims to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad via progeny who got here to Indonesia from Yemen and have been among the many first to introduce Islam within the archipelago. Amongst many Muslims, the declare of such a connection to Muhammad offers him prompt credibility.

“He is excellent at capitalizing on that,” Mr. Wilson mentioned. “For a lot of, that makes him the default spiritual authority.”

As a part of this branding technique, he has additionally taken to utilizing the title Imam Besar, or Grand Cleric, of Indonesia, suggesting that he ranks increased than all different Islamic leaders.

Different clerics have rejected his declare, however that has not stopped F.P.I. from hanging tons of of large indicators round Jakarta celebrating Mr. Rizieq’s return, a lot of them declaring him the “Grand Imam of Muslims in Indonesia” and studying, “Let’s Go Ethical Revolution.”

The military’s high commander for Jakarta, Maj. Gen. Dudung Abdurachman, has known as for disbanding the Islamic Defenders Entrance due to its divisive message. He ordered his troops to help the native authorities in eradicating the indicators, which have been put up with out the town’s permission.

“There must be no banner inviting a revolution,” Normal Dudung mentioned. “Don’t disturb the unity and integrity of Jakarta. If anybody tries, I’ll beat them.”

However nearly as quick because the indicators got here down, new ones have been put up.

Dera Menra Sijabat contributed reporting.

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