January 17, 2017
When Ulil Abshar-Abdalla was a teenager in
Pati, Central Java, he placed first in an Arabic class held at his local
madrasa. The prize was six months of tuition at the Institute for the Study of
Islam and Arabic (LIPIA), a Jakarta university founded and funded by the Saudi
Arabian government. At the end of six months, LIPIA offered him another six. He
After that, it offered him four more years
of free tuition to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Islamic law, or Shariah. He
accepted that too. In 1993, after five years at LIPIA, he was offered a
scholarship to continue his studies in Riyadh. He finally said no.
“Once you accept that, you’re on their
payroll for life,” Abshar-Abdalla told VOA. “But they made it awfully easy to
stick around. I’m from a poor family, and it was quite tempting… I think they
managed to pull a few good minds from my generation that way.”
Since 1980, Saudi Arabia has been using
education to quietly spread Salafism, its brand of puritanical Islam, in
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. The two main arms of this
effort are LIPIA and scholarships for higher education in Saudi Arabia.
Salafism is an ultra-conservative reform
movement that advocates a return to Quranic times. LIPIA teaches Wahhabi
Mazhab, a strain of Salafi Islam expounded by the medieval Sunni theologian Ibn
“Saudi alumni” are now visible in many
arenas of Indonesian public life, holding positions in Muhammadiyah, the
Prosperous Justice Party, and the Cabinet. Some have also become preachers and
religious teachers, spreading Salafism across the archipelago.
The effects of Saudi Arabia’s massive soft
power exercise on the Indonesian citizenry are just starting to become clear.
Most Important Post in Jakarta'
The nexus of Saudi educational diplomacy is
the religious attaché, a special office affiliated with its embassy in Jakarta.
The office grants scholarships for students to study in Saudi Arabia, although
the current attaché, Saad Namase, refused to confirm how many students were
“We don’t really work with the Indonesian
government,” said Namase. “We just try to strengthen cultural ties between our
two countries by, for example, holding Quranic recitation competitions.” On the
topic of scholarships, he said many countries, including the Netherlands and
the U.S. offer scholarships to Indonesian students and the Saudi program was
just one among many.
“The Saudi religious attaché is the most
important post in Jakarta,” said Abshar-Abdalla, who now runs the Liberal Islam
Network. “It is the portal for all Saudi efforts to influence Indonesian
The attaché’s office also pays the salary
of prominent Salafi preachers and supplies Arabic teachers to boarding schools
across Indonesia, according to Din Wahid, an expert on Indonesia Salafism, at
the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.
Beyond the attaché’s office, several Saudi
Arabian universities directly offer scholarships to Indonesian students.
One reason the Indonesian government is
unlikely to present roadblocks to Saudi cultural expansion is its precarious
annual Hajj quota, according to Dadi Darmadi, a UIN researcher who focuses on
the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
“We were just granted 10,000 extra Hajj
permits this year, which is still a drop in the bucket considering Indonesia’s
population of 203 million Muslims,” said Darmadi, “I think Indonesia would
hesitate to antagonize Saudi Arabia and prompt cuts to that hard-won quota.”
Hidayat Nur Wahid, a member of Indonesia’s
House of Representatives and a leader of the right-wing Prosperous Justice
Party (PKS), is one of the most prominent national politicians who have passed
through Saudi universities. He studied, through a series of scholarships, for
an undergraduate, masters and doctorate degree in theology and history of
Islamic thought at the Islamic University of Medina.
“The majority of Islamic texts are in
Arabic, which is why I wanted to study in Saudi Arabia,” Nur Wahid told VOA.
“Plus, the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad animates Medina. I enjoyed my years
Nur Wahid said he was not exposed to
radicalism or "anti-social" teachings in Medina. “We just learned how
to be good Muslims. And it’s a misconception that everyone who studies in Saudi
Arabia becomes a preacher or religious teacher. Many graduates become officials
or politicians like me.”
“Since it is the place where Islam
originated, many students think that Saudi Arabia represents authentic Islam,” researcher
Saudi theology had the opposite effect on
Abshar-Abdalla, who gradually grew disenchanted with the Salafi movement during
his five years at LIPIA.
“Although I had some short-lived enthusiasm
for that simplistic theology, I found it to be puritanical at its core,” said
Abshar-Abdalla. Instead, he started to read various other Islamic texts on his
own, including Sufi and Shia ones, and eventually founded the Liberal Islam
Network (JIL) in 2001.
Ironically, he himself was once recruited for
the student movement that would develop into PKS. “I was invited for a rafting
trip in Bogor one weekend at university, and I realized they were trying to get
me to join Tarbiyah, the embryo of the current PKS party,” said Abshar-Abdalla.
“I sort of ran in the opposite direction.”
Although Saudi-educated preachers in
Indonesia might be causing a subtle rightward shift in national ideology, a
more immediate concern is whether Salafi teachings encourage terrorism or
“By and large, I think not, because
official Salafism is quietist, or apolitical, in order to preserve the
authority of Saudi royalty in its homeland,” said Wahid. “That being said, when
this ideology migrates back to Southeast Asia, all bets are off.”
One prominent example of non-quietist, or
jihadist, ideology is the Salafi-influenced Ngruki pesantren in Solo, Central
Java, which has incubated a number of known Indonesian terrorists.
And Zaitun Rasmin, a graduate of Medina
Islamic University, was one of the chief organizers of the hardline
demonstrations against the governor of Jakarta in late 2016. “He’s an example
of an Indonesian Salafist who is unconcerned with being ‘apolitical,’” said
Wahid’s point is that, for all the
resources Saudi Arabia is directing towards Indonesian students, it remains to
be seen how exactly Salafi ideology evolves in its new Southeast Asian context.
“There are three ‘flavours’ of Salafi ideology: quietist, political, and
jihadist. We don’t know what exactly it looks like in Indonesia. All we know is
that it’s here, and it’s growing.”