Jakarta. When it came to choosing between dispersing Muslim hardliners' gathering with force or spending taxpayers' money to make sure they were complying with health protocol, the government would pick the latter.
The Covid-19 Handling Task Force has been under heavy criticism for handing out face masks and hand sanitizers at an event held by Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to celebrate Prophet Muhammad's Birthday and the wedding of the leader Rizieq Syihab's daughter on Saturday.
Lt. Gen. Doni Monardo, the head of the Covid-19 Handling Task Force, defend the mask and hand sanitizer distribution, saying it was in no way a gesture of support nor approval of Rizieq's event, which attracted people from as far as Kalimantan and Sulawesi.
"There have been verbal and written appeals [to stop the event], but they were stubborn," Doni told the Globe's sister publication BeritaSatu.com on Sunday. In fact, the Central Jakarta mayor has sent a letter asking Rizieq to limit his crowds, Doni said.
Rizieq seemed unbothered with the pandemic as he kept attracting thousands of people to gather in cramped space in the past week. At the same time, other major Islamic organizations like Muhammadiyah and Nahdlathul Ulama limit their activities to virtual platforms.
The National Police Chief Idham Azis has also avoided voicing opposition to the FPI gatherings, despite calls from the public and epidemiologists to rein in the organization activities. On the other hand, the police keep dispersing far fewer people who were not associated with the hardline organization.
Handing out masks and hand sanitizers on Saturday's event was the cheapest and least risky alternative to mitigate the situation while preventing violent conflicts, Doni said.
"They don't care [about Covid-19] and stay reckless. If the police forcefully disperse them, there will be bloodshed. That must be avoided," Doni said.
There is an adage in disaster management: overcoming disasters should not cause new ones, he said. "I believe the police are cautious," Doni said.
According to Doni, the governors, district heads, and mayors were responsible for handling Covid-19 in their respective regions. They held the authority to deploy the police or the armed forces to control crowds, he said.
"As the head of the national task force, I don't have any men. I don't have troops. What we are doing is notifying, appealing, and warning regional leaders because they have the authority and the troops," Doni said.
With all of its limitations, Doni said the task force strives not to lose sight of its goal of reducing Covid-19 cases. The task force had estimated a spike in the number of Covid-19 new cases from Rizieq's gathering would appear as soon as next week.
"Indeed, this was a crazy time. In [Rizieq's] gatherings, many people forget to wear masks. So instead of letting the number of cases increasing, we should provide them with masks," Doni said.
"Sometimes love is needed for the common good, for the health of many more people," he said.
Critics said the task force should not be put on such a difficult position choice if President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo were more assertive in dealing with political rivals.
Hendardi, the head of human rights group Setara Institute, said Jokowi has been accommodating his political rivals, searching for security and stability. Jokowi appointed Prabowo Subianto, the former army general who ran against him in the 2019's presidential election, as defense minister in his current cabinet. Rizieq and FPI supported Prabowo in the election but remain on the opposition side today.
"Turning a blind eye to [Rizieq's] crowds proves that Jokowi is trapped in his own political calculation. If he does not get caught up in politics of accommodation, President Jokowi would have ordered the National Police chief to crack down on the crowd immediately," Hendardi said.
And it's likey that FPI would test the authorities again in the coming days. On Saturday, Rizieq announced his plan to travel around Indonesia to campaign for what he called the "moral revolution."
"God willing, after taking a break for a few days to become fully fit again, I with the FPI management will travel around Indonesia. We will visit every province, we invite all the people, and we will coordinate and consolidate to launch the moral revolution," Rizieq said in a recorded video on FPI's Youtube channel.
"So, don't try to stop our mass gatherings. Because this time, we will never tolerate anyone who tries to stop mass gatherings and Muslims," he said.