The Case of the Sexting Imam

Rizieq Shihab may be the most controversial public figure in Indonesia today. Admired by many, reviled by others, the Great Imam of a leading hardline Muslim organization is wanted for pornography.

Mr. Rizieq heads an organization no less controversial than he: the Islamic Defenders Front (in Bahasa, Front Pembela Islam, or F.P.I.), which is best known for promoting the application of Shariah throughout Indonesia, sometimes with hate speech. He rides around in a Jeep Rubicon, wearing all-white robes, his left hand on a microphone, his right index finger pointing to the sky. He sermonizes in a deep, strident voice and leads demonstrations, often violent, against bars and clubs and other places he calls “immoral.”

Early this year, he also led massive protests against the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, claiming, among other things, that non-Muslims can’t lead Muslims. Ahok, who is ethnic Chinese and Christian, wasn’t re-elected in April and then was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy.

Some say Mr. Rizieq is a hatemonger. He has slighted the tradition of the Sundanese, the second-largest ethnic group in Indonesia, by once making a rude joke about their traditional greeting “sampurasun,” which loosely translates as “please pardon me,” pronouncing it “campur racun,” or mixed poison. (He thinks people should say “assalamualaikum” for hello, after the Arabic.)

He has mocked Sukarno, modern Indonesia’s first president, by saying that Sukarno’s foundational philosophy of the state, known as Pancasila, put religion “up the ass.” He has made threatening speeches against Hindus in Bali. He has insulted Christians by asking, “If God had a son, then who was the midwife?”

And now he’s being charged with violating anti-pornography laws.

It’s not the first time he is in trouble with the law. In 2003, he was put in prison for seven months for insulting the police. He was sent back to jail in 2008, for a year and half, after the F.P.I. assaulted members of the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Faith, an interfaith group that defends the rights of the Ahmadiyah, a Muslim minority, during a convention at the National Monument in Jakarta.

But Mr. Rizieq’s latest case is a curious development.

Pornography has been an important element in his campaign to establish Islamic law throughout Indonesia. (It applies only in the northwestern province of Aceh.) Mr. Rizieq and the F.P.I. have attacked the offices of Playboy Indonesia. They have led demonstrations against Maxima Pictures for producing a film featuring the Japanese porn star Maria Ozawa, known as Miyabi. Yet Mr. Rizieq finds himself embroiled in a sex scandal, and one that mirrors another he helped create.

One day in June 2010, video footage was leaked showing the singer Nazril Irham, more commonly known as Ariel, having sex with his girlfriend and, separately, with another woman. It shocked the Indonesian public. The police soon caught two men and charged them for stealing and releasing the contents of the recordings, but much of the public outcry still fell on Ariel.

Then the F.P.I. got involved. Not only did it demand that Ariel be charged with pornography; it also said he should be stoned to death. Organizations like the F.P.I. often make their case for establishing Shariah — which calls for stoning adulterers — on the back of other issues. After a stressful trial, and riots, Ariel was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

Seven years later, history is taking an ironic turn. Amid the controversy of the Jakarta gubernatorial election — full of hate speech, racial incitement and claims of blasphemy — screen captures of sexually explicit text messages, accompanied by nude photos of a woman, circulated anonymously on social media. And they featured the Grand Imam himself.

The police charged Mr. Rizieq, as well as the woman in the photos, with pornography-related crimes. After Mr. Rizieq failed to respond to summonses — and was discovered to be in Saudi Arabia — the police declared him to be a fugitive.

For the F.P.I. and other hard-line Islamic groups, the scandal is humiliating. Ariel, upon being released after nearly two years in prison, became a popular singer again. If Mr. Rizieq is found guilty, he won’t be rehabilitated so fast.

His lawyers claim that the police are “criminalizing the ulema,” or Muslim scholars. They say that the case against Mr. Rizieq is a setup and revenge for Ahok’s electoral defeat and imprisonment. But Mr. Rizieq has already lost a great deal of moral legitimacy — and not just personally, but also for the F.P.I. and other radical Islamic groups.

Yet the scandal is no less complicated for opponents of Mr. Rizieq and the F.P.I. It coincides with other sex prosecutions, and together they indicate that the state has become overinvolved in the sex lives, and sexual orientation, of its citizens.

In mid-May, two gay men were publicly caned in Aceh, the only Indonesian province that enforces Islamic criminal law. Around that time, a group of gay men were arrested in Jakarta at a gathering that the police described as a “sex party.” Despite the fact that same-sex relations are not illegal in Indonesia, these men now face pornography charges.

One big problem, of course, are the anti-pornography laws, which were passed in 2008, with the support of the F.P.I. and Islamic parties in Parliament. Both local governments and vast swathes of the population in eastern provinces such as Bali, Papua and East Nusa Tenggara objected to the legislation outright, as did women’s rights activists. These groups worried that the regulations were too vague and could be used to suppress the cultural diversity that defines Indonesia. Despite several legal challenges, a court rejected calls to re-examine the laws, determining that they did not violate the Constitution.

Mr. Rizieq has been embroiled in several cases before, but he is being pursued most aggressively than ever for this business of sexting. Why? Historically, political opponents in Indonesia used to be silenced with accusations of treason. More recently, as with Ahok, it’s been with blasphemy laws. Now, anti-pornography?

Indonesia faces a serious threat from the rise of religious radicalism and conservatism generally. The F.P.I.’s aggressive campaigns are one example of that trend — and the case against the F.P.I.’s leader is another. That’s why the Rizieq scandal should worry not just his supporters, but everyone else as well: The pornography charges brought against him only confirm the closing of Indonesia’s mind.

Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian novelist who lives in Jakarta, is the author of Beauty is a Wound” and “Man Tiger.

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