Saudi Arabia’s puritanical brand of Islam – Salafism – has come under scrutiny in Indonesia as the ruler of the oil rich kingdom made a state visit to Jakarta last week.
Religious and rights groups have questioned whether Salafism has fueled violence and intolerance in Indonesia, a sprawling and diverse country where Islam took root in cultures shaped by Hinduism, Buddhism and animism.
Salafism is a Sunni Muslim movement that embraces a literal interpretation of the Quran and a return to the traditions of the era of the Prophet Muhammad.
The movement’s belief is “dangerous” and being exported into Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, through educational aid by Saudi Arabia, said Ali Munhanif, a senior researcher at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta.
“The movement emulates life in the early Muslim era and leads to anti-modernism, and opposition to the development of society. Anything else is considered un-Islamic. That kind of idea is dangerous,” Ali told BenarNews.
Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries “have been providing scholarships for Indonesians to study there with the hope that they will bring these concepts home,” he said.
The official “Wahhabi” religion of Saudi Arabia is based on certain segments of Salafism, and reports have claimed that Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism.
The visit by King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud to Indonesia may be an attempt by Saudi Arabia to allay these fears, some reports suggested.
“Now that Wahhabism has been linked with radicalism and even terrorism, the Saudi government has stepped up its campaign to counter that perception and the state visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Indonesia, where religious conservatism has gained ground alongside frequent terrorist attacks, was part of the public relations campaign,” the Jakarta Post daily said in a report at the end of the state visit on Friday.
The King, who is holidaying in Bali, called for a united front to deal with what he termed “a clash of civilizations” and terrorism in a speech to Indonesian lawmakers last week.
“The challenges that the Muslim community and the world in general faces, like terrorism and the clash of civilizations and the lack of respect for a country’s sovereignty, require us to unite in dealing with these challenges,” the monarch said, according to the Jakarta Post.
King Salman also met with leaders of Indonesia’s major Islamic organizations and promoted a tolerant version of Islam as the key in the fight against terrorism and radicalism, the paper said.
Secular Indonesia has grown increasingly concerned about security after suffering a series of terrorist attacks in the past 15 years, including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists.
Last year, a terror raid in Jakarta claimed by the Islamic State left four attackers and four civilians dead.
Azyumardi Azra, Muslim scholar and former rector of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, said some examples of Salafi or Wahhabi influence in Indonesia include Jemaah Islamiyah, the group that mounted the Bali bomb attacks, and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, the group led by jailed cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.
He also said that one goal of Salafism propagated by Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia is to offset the spread of Shia Islam. Shia Muslims are in the majority in Saudi Arabia’s arch rival Iran, as well as Iraq, among other countries.
Human rights groups have expressed concern over the calls by some conservative clerics in Indonesia for the persecution of minority Shias and Ahmadiyah members.
Since 1980, Saudi Arabia has devoted millions of dollars to exporting Salafism to Indonesia, according to a recent report in The Atlantic Monthly, an American magazine.
It has built more than 150 mosques, as well as several Arabic language institutes and a free university in Jakarta, and sent a steady supply of preachers, teachers and textbooks to more than 100 boarding schools, the report said.
There were 900 Indonesian students in 10 universities across the kingdom as of 2016, according to the Association of Indonesian Scholars in Saudi Arabia.
Many more Indonesians get scholarships to study in Australia, the United States and European countries, according to Abdul Mukti, Secretary of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organization in Indonesia.
“Graduates of Saudi state universities don’t necessarily become the followers of Salafism. It’s usually the graduates of non-formal or private education institutions that do,” Abdul told BenarNews.
One bastion of Saudi influence in Indonesia is the tuition-free Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA), a branch of a Saudi university that opened in South Jakarta in 1980. The curriculum is entirely in Arabic; male and female students are segregated.
Alumni of the school include Habib Rizieq, head of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which has been at the forefront of attempts to oust the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta on allegations he blasphemed against Islam.
Another is Laskar Jihad founder Jafar Umar Thalib. Disbanded in 2002, Laskar Jihad recruited Muslims to fight Christians in Ambon, where some 5,000 people were killed and more than 700,000 displaced in communal violence between 1999 and 2002.
Despite the concerns over Salafism, Saudi Arabia is expected to forge ahead with its campaign to spread its version of Islam as it plans to open new campuses of LIPIA in Makassar, Surabaya and Medan, the Jakarta Post reported.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s moderate Muslims are hoping the country’s mainstream Islamic organizations can keep a check on Salafism.
“The movement is not so compatible with Indonesia’s multicultural society,” said Ali, the researcher.
“The role of Nahdlatul Ulama in supporting the nation’s independence was so strong, and Muhammadiyah too, in modernizing Islam,” he said, referring to the two biggest groups that collectively claim tens of millions of members.
Scholar Azyumardi agreed, adding that it was important for the government to encourage both organizations’ role to be in line with the government’s goal of developing a multicultural society and maintaining religious tolerance.
“They are too big to fail. I don’t see the worst scenario [of the rising influence of Salafism],” he said. “but it calls for vigilance and consolidation among moderate organizations.”
But Indonesia has a new mass religious organization, Wahdah Islamiyah, which follows Salafi practices and has branches in every province and more than 174 schools.
It was founded in 1988 by students in Makassar who severed links with Muhammadiyah because of its adoption of Pancasila as a founding principle, according to Chris Chapin, a researcher with the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies. Pancasila, Indonesia’s state philosophy, emphasizes national unity and pluralism.