Presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto has long courted the vote of conservative Islamic voters that support hardline organization such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), with the former general even promising to fly to Saudi Arabia in a private plane to pick up FPI leader Rizieq Shihab (who is living in Mecca in self-imposed exile) to bring him back to Indonesia.
But, despite giving the rival to President Joko Widodo his public support, privately it seems Rizieq thinks very little of Prabowo's religiosity, with the firebrand cleric allegedly calling Prabowo "weak" on Islam.
That's according to Yusril Ihza Mahendra, the chairman of the conservative Islam-based Crescent Star Party (PBB). Yusril and PBB surprised many by choosing to support President Joko Widodo, despite PBB officials previously saying they were ready to lead the opposition against Jokowi.
Recently, Rizieq denied a statement the PBB chairman made in November interview claiming the FPI leader had questioned Prabowo's Islamic credentials.
In denying the statement via a video released on FPI's Youtube channel Front TV on Monday, Rizieq claimed that Yusril was lying and that he had not been in contact with the PBB chairman in two years.
But Yusril was quick to fire back, releasing what he claims to be a transcript of a WhatsApp conversation with Rizieq in which he doubted Prabowo's faith in Islam. The transcript was presented to the media at a press conference yesterday headed by Sukmo Harsono, PBB's executive chairman.
"I have brought evidence that shows the conversation that took place between Prof. Yusril and [Rizieq Shihab] who doubted the [devotion to] Islam of one of the candidate pairs," Sukmo said during the press conference in Jakarta yesterday as quoted by BeritaSatu.
"Thus it is clear, the one who lied was not Prof. Yusril. The one who lied was the one who stated Prof. Yusril had lied," Sukmo added.
The key part of the purported transcript is this message from Rizieq:
"We are in a major dilemma. On the one hand, the people want to replace the president for various essential reasons. And on the other hand, the alternative choice is PS (allegedly Prabowo Subianto) who is not supported by the ulema (Islamic scholars). Therefore the support of the Ijtema for PS must be side-by-side with an ulema for vice president candidate precisely because we know that PS is weak on Islam, and many in his circle are Islamophobic. Moreover, PS has been saddled with SBY, who is spreading propaganda against Islamic politics, which he calls identity politics, and this is also one of the reasons for the failure of an ulema for vice presidential candidate [as PS' running mate]."
The message apparently refers to the ijtema (ulema congress) held by the hardline National Movement to Safeguard Ulema's Fatwa (GNPF) last year to declare support for Prabowo and suggest vice-presidential candidates for him that would meet their approval. Although he attended one of these ijtema, Prabowo ended up spurning their suggestions by choosing wealthy businessman Sandiaga Uno instead.
Rizieq's representatives in Indonesia, including his lawyer, have said the transcript was a fake because Rizieq doesn't use WhatsApp, but Yusril has refused to back down, assuring the media it was real and calling Rizieq "the king of liars".
"That's Rizieq's own writing in Whatsapp, the digital footprint can be seen so it is a very difficult evidence to refute. There may be no record of Rizieq and my telephone conversations, but our communication via WA above is sufficient to show that Habib Rizieq, who accused me of lying, is the actual King of Liars," Yusril said yesterday as quoted by Detik.
Prabowo has faced his own dilemma in courting conservative Islamic voters, simultaneously making gestures such as the promise to bring Rizieq home while also strongly denying rumors that his victory would bring about the creation of an Islamic caliphate government, saying at the latest presidential debate that such a thing was impossible as he was "born from the womb of a Christian".
While it's unlikely to make much of an impact due to the disputed nature of the claim, the idea that Rizieq Shihab has secretly questioned Prabowo's Islamic credentials is both believable and potentially damaging to Prabowo's support among Rizieq's depressingly large number of followers. And the former general can't afford to lose any votes at this point as he still lags behind by 15% or more in most recent polling ahead of the April 17 vote.