There is a warranted concern that the influence of Islamic State is spreading to Southeast Asia as a small minority of Indonesians, Malaysians and others in the region join the movement. There also has long been a broader fear that Islam in parts of Southeast Asia, most notably in Indonesia, is somehow being Arabised and, by implication, radicalised.
To investigate these concerns, the Lowy Institute and the Institute for Political Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta carried out an in-depth study of Indonesians studying in Egypt and Turkey. Based on face-to-face interviews with 47 students across these countries, the goal was to understand the impact of the past half-decade of turmoil in the Middle East on the political and religious outlooks of these students.
The results are largely encouraging, suggesting that time spent by Indonesian students in the Middle East is not necessarily the radicalising experience that some may assume. For the most part, the students emerge from our interviews as discriminating and critical observers of the events around them.
Egypt has the single largest concentration of Indonesian students in the Middle East with about 4500, most of them at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Muslim world’s most venerable teaching institution.
Egypt has experienced some of the most tumultuous years of its modern history in recent years. This has included the successful popular uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and a military coup against the country’s democratically elected president in 2013.
The Indonesian student population in Turkey is smaller, at just more than 700 students, and more broadly spread across the country. Most Indonesians there are from Aceh, a result of Turkish aid after the 2004 tsunami. Some are on Turkish government scholarships while others are on scholarships provided by Turkish non-government organisations, including one affiliated with Turkey’s Fethullah Gulen peace movement.
Turkey’s recent history has been less turbulent than that of Egypt, though 2013 did see protests against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, since 2011 Turkey has become the main transit point for foreign fighters into Syria, including those joining Islamic State.
We focused our study on students from mainstream backgrounds. Most we interviewed came from two large Indonesian Islamic movements, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. Just under a quarter were affiliated with the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a political party originally modelled on the Muslim Brotherhood that is represented in Indonesia’s parliament.
In Egypt the military’s overthrow of the country’s democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013 provoked a heated debate among Indonesian students. Not surprisingly, students from the Brotherhood-affiliated PKS condemned the coup. What was striking, however, was that almost all of the other Indonesian students we interviewed backed the military.
One might have expected that they, as religious students, would show more sympathy towards the overtly religious Morsi. There were several reasons they didn’t.
One was a view held by many that “unruly Arabs” needed a strong hand. As one student wryly noted: “After observing the culture and characters of the Arab people, I support the use of military in transition. Only the Prophet can control the Arabs; if not the Prophet, then at least the military.” Indeed, there was a strong sense among students in Egypt and Turkey of the cultural difference between their home country and their host country.
Asked why the democratic transition had succeeded in Indonesia but not in Egypt, one student said: “Because they’re Arabs. In Algeria before, how many Islamic State (Islamic Salvation Front) were killed after the coup d’état by the military (in 1992)? … We easterners, we’re different.” One student in Turkey contrasted Indonesia’s “unity in diversity” motto with Turkey’s approach, which in their view was aimed at eliminating differences. “Turkey is a strange country. They wiped everything out here and then said, ‘We’re the Turkish nation’, whereas in fact it’s a mixture of many elements — central Asian, European, Arab — but they’re told to say ‘we are Turks’.” Also striking was the criteria by which the students judged political leaders. By and large a leader’s economic literacy was more important than religiosity. This was reflected in the students’ admiration for Erdogan, especially when compared with Morsi. Erdogan, they argued, succeeded because he had focused on economic development and pushed his Islamic agenda gradually. Morsi failed because he couldn’t overcome Egypt’s economic problems and, in the words of one interviewee, “wanted to establish sharia in less than a year”.
A few also thought a little Erdogan-style toughness might be suitable for Indonesia. As one student noted: “There are positive examples from Turkey for Indonesia, such as prioritising the development of infrastructure and facilities. When that’s done, it makes life easy for people. Even if it means using a little force.” Encouragingly, none of the students interviewed expressed any support for Islamic State. Most expressed revulsion at the group’s hyper-violent nature.
As one student observed: “You don’t just shoot, ‘You’re a Shia’ — bang! You have to understand a lot before you apply sharia. It isn’t as easy as some people think … None of the ulama (Islamic scholars) who understand this agree with Islamic State.” More worrying, however, was the view of a significant number of the students we interviewed, roughly a fifth, that the rise of Islamic State was a US conspiracy to divide the Islamic world. As one student observed: “America comes and says, ‘We’re going to defend the Sunnis.’ But use your brain; is it possible that someone who doesn’t share our religion, our beliefs, is going to defend us, especially when in one respect they’re our enemy?” Our interviews also shed light on the case of two Indonesians who left their school in Turkey to join Islamic State (one in 2013 and one in 2014). Both were bright students of high school age with a strong interest in maths and science who won scholarships from a Gulen-affiliated NGO to study in Turkey. They thought they were going to a secular high school but found themselves in a religious school. Unhappy, isolated and disappointed, they began visiting extremist websites. Eventually both found their way to Syria, where one was killed. This is yet another pointer to the complex and personal nature of the radicalisation process.
Australians are right to be concerned about links between extremists in the Middle East and a radical fringe in Indonesia. And it is certainly the case that some Indonesians studying in the Middle East, most notably in Saudi Arabia, have adopted the ultra-puritanism of their hosts. But we should also be wary of the breezy assertions of some Western political leaders that contemporary terrorism reflects some inherent flaw in the broader Islamic faith that requires reformation.
Our interviews underline the great diversity that exists in Islam. They show that Muslims do look at events in other parts of the Muslim world with a critical eye. They are also a timely reminder that religion is not the only criteria by which faithful Muslims make their judgments about politics and society.
Anthony Bubalo is deputy director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He is co-author, with Sidney Jones and Navhat Nuraniyah from the Institute for Political Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, of the Lowy Institute report Indonesian Students in Egypt and Turkey. The report was released yesterday and can be downloaded at www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/indonesian-students-egypt-and-turkey.