Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Rebranding for revival

Published: Nov 15, 2023

Wahyudi Akmaliah & Cahyo Pamungkas 

On 2 December 2022 we entered the Mosque At-Tin in East Jakarta in time for the dawn prayer (subuh). Our intention was to observe the reunion of the ‘212 Movement’ after several attempts to hold such an event had been stifled in recent years. The reunion was commemorating the mass demonstrations first held on 2 December 2016, in the surrounds of Monas (National Monument) in central Jakarta, in which Muslims from diverse Islamic groups and backgrounds came together for what is considered Indonesia’s largest ever protest. The reunion is an effort to reinvigorate the spirit of this and subsequent mass mobilisations around what became known as the 212 Movement. 

A focus of protest 

At the time, police estimated the crowd assembled on 2 December 2016 as around 200,000 people, although the organisers put the number far higher, in the millions. The focus of their protest was a call for the imprisonment of the then governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaya Pernama, known as Ahok, on the grounds that he had performed an act of religious blasphemy. These events took place in the lead-up to gubernatorial elections, with Ahok running for a second term. Ultimately, the 212 Movement was considered a success with Ahok’s prosecution and sentencing to two years in prison the following May.

Prior to the 212 Movement, Ahok seemed poised to win the gubernatorial election that was to be held in February 2017. The turning point in his political career occurred in September 2016, when he was convicted in the Thousand Island district (Kepulauan Seribu) for remarks related to the Qur'anic verse, Surah Al-Ma'idah 51. Whilst campaigning in his home province, Ahok had referenced the verse to claim that his opponents used it to argue that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims. As a ‘double minority’, both ethnic Chinese and Christian, he felt he was unfairly targeted and the verse mis-used. The controversy was exacerbated when a 30-second video was uploaded to Facebook a few weeks later by Buni Yani, a former lecturer at the London School of Public Relations in Jakarta. 

Buni Yani asked if the video might constitute religious defamation and shared an edited transcript of Ahok's statement, omitting the word ‘use’ (pakai). The edited video altered the context of Ahok's words, making it appear as if he were stating that the Qur'an itself should not mislead Muslims. Subsequently, many Islamic organisations, including the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and the FPI (Islamic Defender Front), led by Rizieq Shihab its the founder and leader and ultimately, one of the figureheads of the 212 Movement, demanded that Ahok be brought to trial. The legal proceedings against Ahok did indeed commence, accompanied by a series of Islamic mobilisations aimed at ensuring his prosecution. Human rights defenders and others argue that Ahok’s conviction and imprisonment were a consequence of these interventions, orchestrated by both religious elites and the masses.

Many of those attending the reunion at the At-Tin mosque six years later, had made long journeys to attend. Around five thousand people, including whole families, congregated around the mosque with large numbers sleeping inside or nearby. Virtually everyone was dressed in white. In Islamic teaching this colour is seen to represent kindness, preciousness, and cleanliness. For the organisers of this reunion wearing white was also intended as a symbol to demonstrate political neutrality

A movement without a cause?

It immediately struck us that this event differed from the previous reunions of the 212 Movement. Firstly, there was no overtly political oratory. Instead, speeches were focused on messages about Islamic solidarity. There were performances of Islamic rituals such as zikir (a form of meditation or recitation of the names of Allah), reciting salawat (giving praise to the Prophet), practicing the night (shalat malam) and earlier morning praying (salat subuh) and, lastly, tausiyah (Islamic teachings which concerned on the moral appealing). 

Followers of Reunion 212 gather in Jakarta (2/12/2021). ANTARA/Akbar Nugroho Gumay

Most obviously, unlike earlier reunions, the 2022 event was not held at Monas or the Istiqlal mosque, but at the Suharto family-owned At Tin Mosque. Why the police refused to issue a permit for the 212 Reunion at either of those locations remains unclear. The reasons are most likely to be strongly related to the government’s policy to control this movement and its associated ban on the FPI, issued on 30 December 2020. Such a reunion was seen to have the potential to generate momentum and provide a platform to a broader public, for FPI’s political orientation once again, and in turn threaten the government’s power. 

The connection between the 212 Reunion and the Suharto family was established several years earlier and is one of mutual benefit. On the one hand, the 212 Reunion committee required a venue for their gathering, especially after facing rejection when attempting to secure government-owned locations. On the other hand, the Suharto family, through their new political party, Berkarya, sought to leverage the enduring popularity of Rizieq Shihab and gain the support of FPI members ahead of the 2024 election. This symbiotic relationship was initiated as early as 10 April 2019, when Siti Hardianti Rukmana, known as Tutut, and her party delegation visited Pesantren Agrokultur Markaz Syariah, which is affiliated with Rizieq. Despite being in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at the time, Rizieq warmly welcomed Tutut and her team through teleconference. During this encounter, both Tutut and Rizieq expressed admiration for each other's contributions to the nation and the ummah. For Tutut, FPI had contributed to enhancing security and fostering a peaceful environment in Indonesia. From Rizieq's perspective, despite Berkarya's limited track record, this party was seen as a faithful guardian of the ulama's congregation. 

A temporary silencing

Four years later at the At-Tin Mosque reunion, Rizieq Shihab, newly free on parole following his prosecution and sentencing for violating Indonesia's quarantine law and spreading fake news during the pandemic, was one of the attendees. Whilst his attendance was a significant boost for the organisers he was not permitted to give a speech owing to his parole conditions, which apply to the end of July 2024.

The changing nature and context for these reunions demonstrates how since its heyday in 2016-2017, the Indonesian government under President Widodo has, at least for now, curtailed this movement. As mentioned, in December 2020, as part of a range of measures to clamp down on radical Islamic groups, FPI was banned. Up until then Rizieq Shihab had used his position as leader of the FPI to criticise what he deemed the ‘un-Islamic’ politics of the Widodo presidency. Prior to the 212 Movement, Shihab’s criticisms of the government were primarily delivered in Islamic sermons in the mosques, at events of Islamic teaching, or through the platform given at demonstrations. For many lower class Jakartans the messages he relayed in his speeches resonated with their daily struggle to make a living amid increasing precarity. His alliances with predatory political actors with strong interests in the outcomes of the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017 and the presidential election in 2019 transformed him from a local religious leader who was not supported by most Indonesian Muslims, to becoming a recognised religious figure leading a major Islamic mobilisation.

A new generation of preachers

With the forced demise of the FPI, a new organisation, Front Persaudaraan Islam (Islamic Brotherhood Front, FPI), simply assumed its mantle and Rizieq Shahab’s son-in-law Muhammad bin Husein Alatas was appointed as its leader. It remains to be seen if the rebranded FPI under Husein Alatas’ leadership can articulate the particular voice of Islam in the same way Rizieq once did. Although he is the nominated successor to his father-in-law, Husein Alatas’s personality and leadership style is vastly different to Rizieq's and arguably lacks the same appeal for FPI followers. 

We would argue that there is another candidate for the leadership of the 212 Movement who appears to have more in common with FPI’s founder and is a possible successor to him.

Bahar bin Smith was born in Manado, North Sulawesi, on 23 July 1985. He pursued his education at the Darullughah Wadda'wah Islamic Boarding School in Bangil, Pasuruan, East Java. In 2007, he established the Prophet's Defender Council (Majelis Pembela Ulama) in Pondok Aren, South Tangerang City, with close ties to the FPI. He then later founded the Tajul Alawiyyin Islamic Boarding School in Kemang, Bogor. Bahar holds the distinguished title of Sayyid, as he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. His ancestral lineage can be traced to his great-grandfather, Habib Alwi bin Abdurrahman bin Smith, the first member of his father's family to be born in Indonesia after relocating from the Hadhramaut region, in present day Yemen. 

Bahar bin Smith faces charges in court in Bandung, Jawa Barat, (28/2/2019) /ANTARA-M Agung Rajasa

Rizieq and Bahar have similar characteristics, including a track record of flouting the law leading to prosecutions and time served in prison. Although Bahar was not one of FPI’s inner circle, on many occasions, Rizieq has supported him as he faced criminal charges and prosecutions. For both Bahar and Rizieq, their criminal records serve to only enhance their appeal for their loyal followers. 

Bahar’s criminal record includes charges relating to disobeying COVID-19 lockdown regulations and hate speech. For instance, in 2010 he led an attack on Jemaat Ahmadiyah Indonesia in South Jakarta; in 2012 he mobilised approximately 150 of his followers for a sweeping action at De Most Cafe in South Jakarta; and in November 2018, he was reported to the police for insulting Indonesian President Joko Widodo. On 9 July 2019, Bahar was sentenced to three years in prison for molesting two children in 2018, at an Islamic boarding school in Kampung Kemang, Bogor. He was released on 16 May 2020. 

Rather than diminishing their religious authority, these prosecutions are seen by their followers as testament to their commitment to defend Islam against a government they believe is intent on eroding religious freedoms. Arguably, Bahar’s prosecutions and court appearances transformed him from an unknown religious figure into a religious authority, who in Rizieq’s absence could be in a position to take over where the FPI firebrand left off.

A new look 

Indeed, such is his profile that many attendees at the December 2022 reunion were eagerly awaiting Bahar’s arrival. He was greeted with warm applause and many young people waved flags adorned with his image. Although the audience may have hoped he would speak about political issues the committee had instructed him to only cite salawat, or a offer blessing. Compared to other Islamic preachers attending the reunion, after Rizieq, Bahar was clearly the most popular figure there.

In his detailed observations about Bahar’s rising popularity Yen Tzu-Chen notes the importance of his involvement in the 212 mobilisation in 2016. It was there that his reputation was established as he made provocative speeches and engaged with police to defend their right to demonstrate. Where exactly Bahar sits among his fellow young hadrami preachers remains to be fully understood. This is a generation seeking to balance preaching to a traditional Islamic audience, with the rise of new religious preachers from Islamic revivalist groups including Jamaat Tabligh, the Tarbiyah movement, and Salafi, who are increasingly digitally savvy and pose an existential threat to hadrami preachers. 

In this context, there are a number of reasons why many young urban Muslims are increasingly attracted to Bahar. The first of these is his unorthodox appearance compared to other hadrami preachers. Whilst most adopt an Arab-style way of dressing, such as donning a white hat (peci putih), white shirt (baju kurung putih) and shawl (sal), and short haircuts, Bahar’s appearance is more like that of a preman (thug) or rock star; he has shoulder-length blonde hair and cap and he often sports sunglasses. He wears colourful and contrasting clothing, in lieu of white robes. 

He is active on various social media platforms and his YouTube videos present strong images of masculinity, such as those which represent him as a brave lion capable of defeating his enemy in a battle. Through his social media accounts he has built an intimate relationship with his fans. This relation structure can be seen in his short videos on YouTube where he shares his current activities and responses to current social-political issues with his followers and engages with them directly via comments.

Precarity and Islamic populist representation

Whilst it is difficult to imagine that Bahar could become an Islamic populist on the scale Rizieq achieved in relation to of the Ahok blasphemy case, conditions in urban Indonesian continue to harbour the potential for such a figure to emerge again. In 2023, data from Badan Pusat Statistik (Bureau of Statistics, BPS) indicated that the number of poor people living in Jakarta and surrounds is increasing, reaching 477.830 or 4.44 percent, which is slightly higher than 2015 of 398,920 or 3.72 per cent. The forthcoming 2024 election in which three candidates are running for the presidency - Ganjar Pranowo, Prabowo Subiyanto, and Anies Baswedan - is also a potential trigger, as identity politics is likely to feature in campaigning once again. By taking the lessons learned from the Jakarta election in 2017 and the Presidential election in 2019, it might be seen as advantageous to use similar tactics in the 2024 elections.

The three presidential candidates are yet to differentiate themselves from each other with each presenting a similar vision to establish Indonesia as more progressive and prosperous. As the campaign progresses and the race becomes tighter, the votes of urban Indonesians - most of whom are Muslim and many of whom are also living somewhat precarious lives - will be increasingly in play. As it was in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017, ethnicity and religion could be levers pulled in pursuit of votes. If such a situation were to arise again, with Rizieq muzzled and his generation of preachers arguably less relevant to young Muslims, figures like Bahar may see and seize an opportunity. Bahar has the potential to be an Islamic populist capable of driving the marginalised narrative of the next generation of disenfranchised urban Muslims.

Wahyudi Akmaliah is a doctoral candidate in the Malay Studies Department, National University of Singapore (NUS) and Researcher at Research Centre for Society and Culture, National Research and Innovation Agency (PMB-BRIN). Cahyo Pamungkas is a research professor in Sociology, Center for Areas Studies, the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).

Inside Indonesia 153: Jul-Sep 2023

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