Transnationalism and the polarisation of Indonesia’s Muslim community

Martin van Bruinessen,
Utrecht University / International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)



A major shift in the nature and intensity of the transnational contacts connecting Indonesian Muslims with the Middle East and the West occurred in course of the 1980s. Two major developments in the Middle East were of crucial importance: the Iranian revolution (1978-79) and the jihad in Afghanistan. An earlier significant event should also be mentioned: the Ramadan/Yom Kippur war of 1973 and the ensuing Arab oil boycott, after which oil prices rose dramatically and countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (and Iran) suddenly had enormous sums of money to dispense.

It took a few years for the Iranian revolution made its first impact. The works of Ali Shariati, widely considered as one of the ideologists of the revolution, reached Indonesia towards the mid-1980s. They were translated by Indonesians who had studied in the USA, which is where they encountered Shariati. Only later were other works translated from the Arabic by Middle East-based students (no one knew Persian as yet). Numerous students and intellectuals came under the spell of modern Iranian Muslim thought, which appeared intellectually more stimulating than Egyptian or Pakistani Sunni reformist and Islamist thought. Significant numbers self-converted to Shi`a Islam, and at least dozens, possibly more, went to study in Iran.

Saudi Arabia, which felt threatened by Iran’s revolutionary ethos, orchestrated a counter-offensive, which in Indonesia was carried out by its closest collaborators, the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII) and certain key persons in the mass organisations Muhammadiyah and Al Irsyad. The offensive consisted mainly of scholarships for Indonesian students to study in Saudi Arabia, of financial support for da`wa, dissemination of the right version of Islam (much of which went into building mosques and schools) and welfare work (feeding the pious poor), and especially in flooding the book market with cheap books representing the Salafi interpretation of Islam and conspiratorial worldviews presenting Shi`ism, liberal Islam and other ‘deviating’ trends as deliberate efforts to destroy Islam.

For many years, numerous Indonesians had been studying in the Middle East, usually financed by themselves or their parents: Mecca was a favourite destination among traditionalists, gradually giving way to the Azhar in Cairo. Some reformists also studied in Egypt (and came in contact with the Muslim Brotherhood there); from the 1970s on, increasing numbers began going to Saudi Arabia — not to Mecca but to the Salafi universities in various other cities of the kingdom. The establishment of a Saudi sponsored language institute in Jakarta — which later began offering the same curriculum in Islamic studies as Saudi universities — helped to redirect to stream of students towards Saudi Arabia. Scholarships given in course of the 1980s increased the volume of students.

Islamic radicalism in Indonesia had, until that time, been largely home-grown. Neither the Darul Islam movement (which fought to become the Islamic State of Indonesia and replace the secular Republic of Indonesia) nor the Islamist wing of the Masyumi party had had more than ephemeral international contacts. The Darul Islam rebellion was defeated in the early 1960s but lived on underground. The Masyumi party ran into problems with Sukarno and had to dissolve itself in 1960. Its most politically minded and religiously puritan leaders redirected their efforts towards da`wa and in 1967 established the said Dewan Dakwah, which in the course of the 1970s moved close to the Saudi-sponsored Muslim World League, coming under the influence of Muslim Brotherhood thought and later increasingly of the Saudi brand of Salafi thought. Radical members of this milieu joined forces with the underground Darul Islam (DI), giving it an ideology and disciplining practices more directly informed by those of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the origin of the group later known as Jama`ah Islamiyah (JI).

In the early and mid 1980s MB ideas and practices spread rapidly through various mosque-based networks (the ‘Usrah movement’). One network is based primarily in campus mosques; later this becomes known as the Tarbiyah movement, and is the nucleus of the present Partai Keadilan (Justice Party) – perhaps the only ‘real’ political party of Indonesia. Another network is off-campus and recruits people of different social background, including ‘lumpen’ elements: this is the Darul Islam/Jama`ah Islamiyah network. 

Around 1985 recruitment for the jihad in Afghanistan began. Allegedly a Saudi recruiter visited various radical groups in Indonesia and offered to finance the trip for those willing to join the struggle. Both the DI/JI network and another branch of the underground DI annually sent a number of recruits. At the same time, Indonesians studying in Saudi Arabia were also persuaded to join the jihad, through official Saudi channels. By the end of the decade, there were several hundred Indonesians who had seen some action in Afghanistan.

Graduates from the Middle East become increasingly prominent in the 1990s and fill teaching positions in secondary and higher educational institutions. The government had perceived the change in Muslim discourses early on and made efforts to send prospective teaching staff of State Islamic Institutions to western countries, signing agreements with such universities as McGill, Leiden and ANU. Muslim discourse increasingly polarised into two camps, more or less coinciding with the educational affiliations (Middle East versus West).

Suharto’s alliance of convenience with reformist Islam (sealed in 1990) gave the ‘Middle East graduates’ a wide berth and unprecedented influence. They represent, however, a wide range of currents between which there are numerous conflicts and disagreements. Discussion among committed and radical Indonesian Muslims reflected discussions among such groups in the Middle East. Saudi-influenced Salafi groups gradually extended their influence at the expense of others – in which the availability of Saudi and Kuwaiti funding was not an unimportant factor. Laskar Jihad, the largest of the militia groups of the past few years, came out of the Salafi movement and regularly requested fatwas from Saudi Arabia and Yemen to legitimatise its policy decisions.

Salafi and MB networks, with their Middle Eastern sponsors, are paralleled by the numerous Muslim ‘civil society’ initiatives supported by the likes of USAID, The Ford Foundation and The Asia Foundation. Groups that attempt to counter fundamentalist discourses and develop and spread more liberal interpretations of the faith exist and have become more active in the past years. They depend even more on transnational networks of support than their radical counterparts, however.