An Indonesian court on Thursday sentenced hardline Muslim cleric Habib Rizieq Shihab to eight months in prison and fined him 20 million rupiah (US$1,400) for violating coronavirus restrictions by hosting crowded events after his return last year from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia . The jailing of Rizieq, who led the now banned Islamist vigilante group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), was not expected to trigger a violent reaction from his hundreds of thousands of followers “as he will be freed in about two months’ time”, said Robi Sugara, a lecturer and counterterrorism analyst at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University in Jakarta. Rizieq was arrested in December and the time spent in detention will be deducted from his jail sentence. “It is difficult to carry out a violent reaction [when the] Indonesian government [is so] very powerful,” said Sugara, though he added that FPI members would remain “militant”. While Rizieq’s supporters would be “angry” that their “role model” would have a criminal record, the light sentence and fine – similar to the one he received last year from Jakarta authorities for the massive crowd that gathered at his daughter’s wedding – meant the “anger will not be too big”, said Iwa Maulana, a researcher at the Centre for Detention Studies in Jakarta. Maulana said FPI members and Islamist groups would give their moral support to Rizieq but were likely to avoid debates deemed as “dangerous” as they would expect police “to monitor them closely”. Judge Suparman Nyompa handed Rizieq the prison term for violating the health quarantine law in relation to several mass events including his daughter’s wedding, which was attended by thousands. Thai princess allows Covid-19 vaccine imports as roll-out slows Separately, he was fined for an event at an Islamic boarding school in West Java. A live-stream of the court hearing showed Rizieq, dressed in a white tunic, turban and face mask, clutching prayer beads. Prosecutors had sought a jail sentence of two years. Some 3,000 police officers were deployed to guard the courthouse in East Jakarta ahead of the verdict, but there were no big protests by his supporters. Backlash warning The jailing of Rizieq follows a report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) that warned Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s crackdown on “radical” Islamists appeared to have broad public support but ran the risk of undermining civil liberties, creating a political backlash and pushing a few angry activists toward violence. The government’s main target since late 2020 has been the FPI, an Islamist vigilante group with a history of attacks on religious minorities and places of “vice”. IPAC said “FPI was never a terrorist organisation” but some of its members and ex-members have been convicted of terrorism offences. Government accusations that FPI was pro- Islamic State and supportive of terrorism intensified after the November 2020 return of Shihab from Saudi Arabia after three years of self-imposed exile, IPAC said. Indonesian soap star Nikita takes on firebrand cleric Rizieq Rizieq’s return triggered a series of events that led to the killing of six of his bodyguards; his own imprisonment and the arrests of other leaders; and the formal dissolution of the organisation on December 30, 2020. “The danger now is that some of FPI’s more militant members could be pushed by a sense of unfairness and persecution to more lethal violence, thus making the government’s claim that it is linked to terrorism a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said IPAC. The arrest of a group of FPI-linked bomb-makers in Condet, East Jakarta, in late March might be an example of this, said IPAC. The group of men, some of whom were arrested in Bekasi, West Java, were part of a militant religious study group led by a former FPI leader named Habib Hussein al-Hasni, whom FPI claimed to have expelled in 2017. Zulaimi Agus, who served as bomb instructor for the group, said he had started studying bomb-making because he had been angered by the government’s response to protests in May 2019, which broke out after Widodo was declared the winner of the presidential election. The protests deteriorated into riots in which several protesters were shot dead by police, including followers of Rizieq. The Condet group also discussed “how China was now controlling Indonesian labour and resources” and “the desirability of attacking Chinese shops and industries in Indonesia, as well as petrol stations and police posts”. All stressed that one top goal was to free Rizieq. Hardline Indonesian cleric returns from Saudi exile to call for ‘moral revolution’ “While there was clearly an FPI connection through Habib Hussein and they were unquestionably committed to violence, the group was not acting under FPI auspices,” said IPAC. “It was an indication, however, that the government’s campaign against FPI ran the risk of creating a backlash and turning angry militants into terrorists. There are several precedents for this in the history of Indonesian extremism,” said IPAC. The Widodo government’s antiradicalism campaign had three prongs, said IPAC. These were: subjecting Islamist groups and their leaders to greater scrutiny and surveillance based on a very loose definition of “radicalism”; intensifying indoctrination of the state ideology Pancasila, on the premise that one cause of radicalism is insufficient nationalism; and partnering with “moderate” organisations such as the country’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, in the formulation of religious policy. “It is the broad scrutiny and surveillance of law-abiding citizens that has raised concerns about civil liberties among human rights groups but with very little outcry from the broader public,” said IPAC. Surveys continue to show that Indonesia is growing more socially conservative and less religiously tolerant. “The support for the crackdown thus may not indicate any shift in religious attitudes but rather approval for a president seen as decisive and firm,” IPAC said. The recent government crackdown against Islamists does not negate the wider religious polarisation that is prevalent in society and in state institutions. “Despite support for the FPI ban, opinion polls continue to show a decline in religious tolerance,” said IPAC. “Government efforts to enforce pluralism are also subject to challenge by conservative elements in the judiciary,” IPAC added. Indonesia’s palm oil sector a driver of illegal logging: US study The reaction of Islamist groups to the FPI ban and the antiradicalism campaign generally has been muted, in part because their usual form of protest – turning out to the streets in large numbers — has not been possible under Covid-19 restrictions. “It may also be because intimidation by the state seems to have worked,” said IPAC. What happens next depends on the Islamists. They had several options, said IPAC. “One is to avoid any further direct antagonism and work on finding a candidate they can back in [the 2024 presidential elections] that will further their goal of greater state enforcement of morality and orthodoxy,” said IPAC. “A second is to focus on quietly building and expanding their respective grass-roots bases. A third is to wait until Covid restrictions are lifted and then look for an issue that can be exploited for mass mobilisation,” IPAC added.