Religious leaders in the world’s most populous Muslim nation explain why relatively few young people are heading to the front lines in Syria and Iraq

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Religious leaders in the world’s most populous Muslim nation explain why relatively few young people are heading to the front lines in Syria and Iraq. Fear of radicalization and new recruits remains very real. A terrorist attack in Jakarta awoke the government’s fears and triggered action from the security forces

Jakarta. The minister is smiling, jacket off, as he goes through his PowerPoint presentation in a banquet room. The coffee break includes bad coffee, lentil soup and a range of curry dishes and fried cassava. Every month since February, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, the Indonesian minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, has invited the local and foreign press for a lunch briefing on the latest developments in the fight against terrorism.

In January 2016, after years of calm, Jakarta suffered an attack that left eight dead – including the four attackers – in a shopping centre in the capital. The attack formally marked the arrival of Islamic State in Southeast Asia. About 300 Indonesians have gone to fight for jihadist groups in Syria, explained the minister. Given a Muslim population of 200 million – Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world – this figure is low. About 3,000 men went there from tiny Tunisia.

Luhut, working through his slides, expanded on how the war was playing out in Posa, on the island of Sulawesi. There, government forces are fighting men commanded by Santoso, the most wanted Indonesian terrorist who looks less like a jihadi who has sworn allegiance to Islamic State and more like a Sandinista decades too late. The army and special forces had cut the search area to 500 kilometres squared, said the minister.

We’re going to start deradicalization programmes in the villages. We’re going to send teachers to the zone and we’ll collaborate on teaching programmes with organizations like Muhammadiya and Nahdlatul Ulama.


Muhammadiya and Nahdlatul Ulama

Muhammadiya is the second most popular Sunni Islam organization in Indonesia, with about 29 million members. Founded in 1912, it is seen as a reforming or modernizing movement. Muhammadiya follows the teachings of the Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh, who lived in Cairo at the end of the nineteenth century, and preaches purification of the faith and a return to a form of Islam untouched by local practices and traditions. The focus is on the individual sense of moral responsibility, on a personal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadīth – the sayings of the prophet of Islam – that is not filtered by the ulama (religious scholars). It places significant attention on modern education, on the western model. In Indonesia, it runs thousands of higher education institutes, from high schools to universities.

Nahdlatul Ulama (Revival of Ulama – NU) was born in 1926 as a reaction to the modernizing trend and the growth of Saudi Wahhabism. The kyai, the ulema who lead Indonesia’s ancient religious schools (pesantren), follow a traditional version of Islam, not based on individual interpretation, but on a series of classical writings by ulama from the Middle East and Indonesia. Unlike Muhammadiya, this movement embraces the pre-Islamic tradition and Sufism in the form advocated by the theologian and jurist Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). In the past Muhammadiya represented the intellectual elite of the cities, while NU had its base with the rural society spread around the archipelago, but today such a distinction has disappeared. NU claims it has about 50 million followers.

“Bismillah,” in the name of God. This is how the short lecture by Dr Ruhaini Dzuhayatin, vice chancellor for student affairs at Yogyakarta Islamic State University, began. Sitting below a photo of Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, she explained the opportunities to study abroad – Italy, Canada, Egypt, Qatar – to a group of students, largely girls with coloured veils. Just outside, male and female students with Mac Books had left their rubber flip-flops on the steps of the modern mosque, which they use as a study room, sitting on the floor in the half light. Ruhaini uses an anecdote to effectively explain the difference between the two major organizations that shape Indonesian Islam. “It used to be possible to recognize a Muhammadiya follower by the outfit: western clothes rather than NU’s favoured traditional Indonesia sarong,” a large length of coloured cotton fabric that is wrapped around the body and hangs down to the ankles.

Muhammadiya members were like protestants. Their goal was to individualize Islam and return it to the fundamental relationship between the individual and God. In substance, praying was enough. Then, you get on with your life. They were part of that trading middle class that had little time to spend in a mosque. After prayer, they had to rush to open up their shops, unlike in rural society where time was slower and ancient traditions had a greater influence. 

Unlike movements in the Arab world, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the two organizations have always seen themselves as expressions of civil society and have never transformed their widespread presence across the archipelago into political ambitions.


In Search of New Extremists

Today, the leaders of both organizations are worried about recruitment by extremist groups like Islamic State, and the government is calling on them to be part of a solution that has to have more than only a military component. They need to invent an alternative narrative.

The images are by now sadly familiar: masked men dressed in black, armed and bearing the Islamic State flag, executing their prisoners. The soundtrack is not, though, the military cappella chants used by Islamic State for its death propaganda. The tempo of a Javanese hymn introduces the words of one of NU’s leaders, Mustofa Bisri:

...We invite others to join us in launching a ‘mental revolution’ to reconceptualize our entire understanding of the world.

This is the trailer for a 90-minute film that was released after the Jakarta attack in January. In it, religious scholars de-construct the ultra-literal interpretations of the Qur’an propagated by Islamic State. They underscore the “Indonesian” nature of local Islam, recalling the teachings of the Wali Songo, the “nine saints,” Sufi teachers who came to the island of Java in the early 15th century. It is to these people that most local Muslims attribute the spread of Islam across the archipelago, based on a spiritual (and partially syncretic) approach that did not breed a sense of distrust among the religious groups already there, including animism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

“From Indonesia, a Muslim Challenge to the Ideology of the Islamic State”­ – this was the headline used by the New York Times following the January attack in Jakarta and the release of the film entitled The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara. The video, according to the newspaper, is the first global initiative – it has been translated into Arabic and English – in a campaign by Nahdlatul Ulama.

Yahya Cholil Staquf, the secretary general of the Supreme Council of NU, is wearing a peçi – traditional black velvet cap worn in the archipelago – and a batik shirt. A row of large green posters with images of the smiling leader welcomes visitors to the NU’s headquarters, squeezed between the numerous shopping centres in Jakarta and surrounded by vendor stalls.


Islam Nusantara PR Campaign

Staquf is in charge of what he readily calls a counter-information campaign with global goals. Thus far, it has led to the creation of a non-profit organization, Bayt ar-Rahman, in Winston-Salem in North Carolina, and a project with the University of Vienna – Vienna Observatory for Applied Research on Radicalism and Extremism – both designed to promote a tolerant, non-violent and very Indonesian Islamic ideology. Islam Nusantara, Islam of the archipelago, is the name used to label the campaign and it is something the government itself is sensitive to. Staquf said:

We follow Sunni Islam, but the term Sunni has been seized by Wahhabism (an ultra-conservative movement born in the eighteenth century on the Arabian Peninsula, Ed.). Wahhabi clerics claim they represent true Sunni Islam, seeking to impose their vision on all Muslims. But the version of Sunni Islam we follow places great importance on the cultural, local, historical dimension, the context.

NU was born in response to the spread of a form of Wahhabism that today, the leaders of the most widespread Indonesian Islamic organization specifically link to terrorism. Staquf says that fighting Wahhabism has been part of NU’s ‘tradition’ since 1926. “Until we have understood that we cannot only fight it in Indonesia. We have learnt that the threat is global and so a global approach is required. This is what we have begun to do today. I have been given the task of developing contacts and finding cooperation opportunities abroad. We already have a counter-narrative. We teach this as part of our tradition. What we need to do is take this beyond our borders such that the world becomes aware of it, that it learns there is an alternative to Islamic State and Wahhabism.”

According to Staquf, his colleagues at Muhammadiya are more prone to Wahhabi contamination because of their “purity,” even though they are also increasingly worried about foreign influences on local Islam. The former charismatic leader of Muhammadiya, Din Syamsuddin, believes there are groups open to Wahhabi influences, citing movements such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. “There are some Muslims who want to spread a ‘purified’ version of Islam not only in relation to faith and worship, but also social life, such as how people dress – more Salafi – while we continue to see social life as a sphere for creativity. This can lead to a conflict of ideas, especially if those proposing the ideas are fanatics who believe they stand for absolute truth and tend to label all others as infidels. And they promote the most literal reading and understanding of the texts possible.”


A Common Enemy

 Religious leaders are scared that extremists might be able to influence the youth. They declared it publicly, said Father Magnis Suseno, a German Jesuit scholar who has been in the country for decades and runs the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, a small, orderly university campus in a residential area of the city, away from the hustle and bustle of Jakarta.

In the past, relations between the two largest Islamic organizations were not good, but now they have a common enemy: extremists. They are focusing on Indonesian Islam, which also needs to be nationalist. True fundamentalists are, actually, pure ideologists, which is why they are dangerous.

“We are taking a step beyond counter-narrative, to ‘counter-identity’,” said Yenny Wahid as she sat in a coffee bar in Jakarta, although it could easily have been New York or London. She is the daughter of one of the most reformist leaders of NU, the Indonesian president from 1999 to 2011, Abdurrahman Wahid, and is now head of the Wahid Institute, an Islam research centre. It has deradicalization programmes that even involve former terrorists. Wearing a pair of tight yellow jeans and a lilac lace veil that sits lightly on her black hair, she speaks in perfect English, mastered at Harvard, to explain that Islam Nusantara is a “brilliant move.”

There was no label before. It provides a basis for imagination. The basic idea can be exported: mitigate the sacred texts through education. Yet, it is becoming tough to do it, because the extremists use direct approaches. It is black or white, especially using social media. Moderates need more space for their counter-arguments.

Many religious leaders argue that counter-information in Indonesia starts in schools, in the more than 40,000 pesantren – religious boarding schools for boys and girls aged 12 to 17 that are spread across the country, often serving rural areas and run by Nahdlatul Ulama – and in high schools run by other organizations. The religious curricula merge with those prescribed by the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, while the general aspects are tied to the general state curricula. In the late afternoon, at the Asshiddiqiyah pesantren in the Kebon Jeruk district of Jakarta, you can hear the slightly uncertain recitation of the Qur’an by groups of young students wearing white prayer caps and sitting on the floor in the school’s mosque, located in a vast courtyard surrounded by four storeys of classrooms and the boarding house divided into sections for boys and girls. A poster explains to the young girls the correct Islamic dress code: no excessively low cut blouses, no T-shirts, a veil on the head.

Muhammaed Ridwan Shafi, the head of the English department, explains that here they study religion using the Kitab Kuning – literally yellow books, after the paper they were once printed on – that is, the written knowledge from the Arabic and Middle Eastern Islamic world. The kyai employed by the school, where the students live, teach the tafsīr, the interpretation of the Qur’an, and it is during these lessons that “we try to give our students – 700 in the pesantren, the majority of which are girls – a different message about Islam that is peaceful both within itself and with other religious,” said Muhammed.


Role of Traditional Teaching

While NU might largely run the pesantren, Muhammadiya focuses on higher education, with 14 thousand schools ranging from elementary schools to universities and 7,500 nursery schools. Unlike NU, it has no active counter-information campaign. “We don’t agree with the term deradicalization,” said Abdul Mukti, the secretary general wearing a batik shirt, who has long headed the Muhammadiya education system – a private network like that of NU. “Our challenge is to defeat violence; not all radical organizations are violent.” Speaking out against the infiltration into Indonesia of radical ideologies like Wahhabism and the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mukti said that their counter-narrative existed “before the bombing, through an education system that provides an open interpretation of the Qur’an.”

The very existence of this widespread educational system headed by these two Islamic organizations – Muhammadiya and NU – is one of the central reasons various experts believe Indonesia has a more moderate approach to religion than in the Middle East. “The system’s most striking feature is not radicalism but the willingness of Muslim educators to adapt their educational programs to the ideals of Indonesia nationhood...” wrote Indonesian experts in Islam Azyumardi Azra, Dina Afrinaty and Robert Hefner. “Few Islamic school systems in the Muslim world show a comparable depth on engagement on the part of Muslim educators... The result has been an Islamic educational system that ranks among the most open and innovative in the world.”

Yet, as the authors themselves accept, these programs have not been capable of preventing radical elements from emerging and extremist groups recruiting in the country. Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta believes the lack of people heading to Syria can be explained elsewhere.

Despite the enormous Islamic population, recruitment in Indonesia has remained under control because the government is not repressive, there are not many internal conflicts, Muslims are not a persecuted minority and the government has a good security apparatus in place.

Indonesia has not adopted a ‘hysterical’ approach, as she said. The leaders of the army and the special forces and various factions of the police are aware of the severity of the threat and fully realise that there are various suspect activities in Indonesia at present. With such a vast Muslim population, this is a very sensitive political question. “Where is the threshold between acceptable behaviour and dangerous behaviour? It is interesting to note the explicit connection made by Nahdlatul Ulama between Wahhabism and terrorism, yet the organization is not prepared to accept that the Salafis in Indonesia and elsewhere are automatically terrorists,” said Jones. He added that it would be wrong to forget that both NU and Muhammadiya have more radical wings within their organizations that have, over the years, encouraged acts of intolerance against other Muslims – Shia and other sects like Ahmadiyya – and brought a bitter tone to interfaith dialogue.


The Brand of Interfaith Dialogue

According to the Wahid Institute, cases of religious intolerance grew by 23% in 2015 compared to the previous year. It is hardly surprising that in some parts of society “interfaith dialogue” has become an almost branded effort, both between different religions and within the different denominations of Islam. In March, in Ungaran (Semarang region of Java), Father Aloysius Budi Purnomo of the Christ the King Parish organized a meeting of Muslim, with their coloured veils, and Christian women, with their heads covered by a light lace foulard, and the nuns working in the local schools. At least two hundred people attended, capturing the attention of the national media and receiving police protection. As a saxophone played and Javanese hymns were sung by a smiling Budi Harjono, Sufi kyai from the nearby town of Tembalang even leant his turban briefly to the priest. This was undoubtedly an absolute first. Right in front of Father Budi’s modern church stands a large green mosque and, on that day, the Imam, wearing a sarong and a batik shirt welcomed his Christian neighbours for the first time.

Zuhairi Misrawi is seen as one of the young “liberal” intellectuals in NU. One Sunday morning in March, he spent a few hours in Bogor, a village roughly sixty kilometres south of Jakarta, nestling between rice paddies and the main road. He was at the headquarters of Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect founded in India in the late nineteenth century and a minority discriminated against in Indonesia, with Christians and Shi‘ites. He was there to explain to young believers that the only antidote to sectarian hate was to learn about each other. It was a lesson about writing, about using social media, blogs and papers. “Our problem is keeping our moderates moderate,” said Misrawi. The headquarter of Ahmadiyya in Bogor was attacked on numerous occasions in 2005.


In the Palace of the “God’s caliph”

Yogyakarta is filled with a past that clearly tells the story of Indonesian syncretism, with its ancient mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist relics, remnants of Dutch colonial rule and blonde Australian tourists. Here, Sultan Hamengkubuwono X bears the title of Kalifatullah, God’s caliph, but wears the outfit of a CEO, complete with jacket and red tie, as he welcomes us to the governor's palace. The crystal chandeliers and china tea service are clear reminders of a colonial age that remains very evident.

The sultan is also the governor of the city, in an anachronistic web of spiritual and earthly power. His tale is the quintessence of Indonesian syncretic Islamharmony, tolerance, pluralism – and yet, in recent months, he has been accused by Christians and Muslims alike of having turned a blind eye too often to the growing number of incidents of intolerance in Yogyakarta. When he speaks about the radicalization that is worrying the country’s Islamic organizations, he uses words that mix Javanese cultural heritage with the most modern aspects of national politics that clearly explain the synergies between religion, traditions and the State. “The ulama and religious leaders must change their approach. Their weakness lies in a failure to highlight the sense of belonging to a community. They teach religion by focusing on heroism, truth and the superiority of their religion, rather than national belonging.”

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Rolla Scolari, “The Indonesian Alternative”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 114-128.

Online version:
Rolla Scolari, “The Indonesian Alternative”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: