Indonesia, as the world’s most populous Muslim country, is a source of great interest for those looking to see how it evolves in the context of the globals cultural milieu of the 21st century. It has traditionally been a pretty tolerant place, relatively speaking, with other religions protected and coexisting. However, this appears to have been changing, influenced by money and ideology from Saudi Arabia, that country that seems to have its fingers in all such pies, but which the US and the UK pander to.
- Letter Concerning Selling Arms to Saudi Arabia
- Saudi Arabia, Human Rights and Sir Gerald Howarth’s Nonsense
Half a million people, all dressed in white, radiated from the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in central Jakarta. Protesters clogged the streets for a mile in every direction; they went all the way up to the National Monument and beyond it to the presidential palace. It was 4 November 2016, and they had come on buses, planes and on foot, from all across Java and even from some other islands, to participate in the largest Islamist demonstration in Indonesian history.
“We came to the palace to enforce the law,” said the cleric Rizieq Shihab, to rapt silence. “Desecrators of the Qur’an must be punished. We must reject the leaders of infidels,” he said, referring to Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Chinese-Christian governor of Indonesia’s capital city, who is known as Ahok. “If our demands are not heard, are you ready to turn this into a revolution?” “We’re ready!” screamed the crowd, breaking into huge applause. “God is great!”, they shouted. There were cries of “Kill Ahok!”
It was an odd scene in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but is not really a “Muslim nation”. Officially, it is a multifaith country that protects six religions equally, where race and ethnicity have been tacitly elided from political discourse. An overtly Islamist political protest like this had no precedent.
In theory, the rally was organised by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), led by Shihab, to accuse Ahok of blasphemy against Islam and call for his removal from office. But in practice, this was less about Ahok and more about displaying the piety and political power of Muslim Indonesians – and it worked. The city shut down all its major arteries that day. At the second protest, on 2 December, the president of Indonesia himself showed up, unannounced, and prayed with them….
As the largest Muslim-majority nation and a developing, postcolonial state, Indonesia has been a prime recipient of the full spectrum of Saudi proselytisation – known as dawa, the call to Islam. And while investments peaked in absolute terms at least a decade ago, as they did in most of the Muslim world, their effects continue to reverberate. Saudi investment in Indonesia has at turns fuelled jihadists, helped consolidate the country’s leading Islamist political party and produced dozens of influential ideologues. The Saudi soft-power apparatus in Indonesia is unrivalled, including Lipia, a large embassy and a powerful, standalone “religious attache”. Saudi charity has also paid for thousands of poor students to go to school and university, and helped rebuild devastated regions such as Aceh after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.
The influence of Shihab’s organisation and vision is just one example of how Saudi dawa has shaped modern Indonesia. Another is the Bali bombings of 2002, which killed 202 people, mostly tourists, in the world’s most deadly terror attack after 9/11, and which woke Indonesia up to the danger of terrorism within its borders. The attacks were planned by a circle of al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists based at the al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Central Java, which was founded with an initial endowment from the Saudi king in 1972.
Beyond such flagship investments, an equally pervasive legacy of Saudi proselytisation in Indonesia has been the rise of virulent religious intolerance. In addition to the commonplace harassment of Christian groups and the show trial of Ahok, its most prominent Christian politician, Indonesia is also now a country where there is a national “anti-Shia” league and mobs have driven Ahmadiyya Muslims from their homes into refugee camps.
It’s not for nothing that when Barack Obama, who spent five years in Jakarta as a child, returned to Indonesia in 2011, he remarked on the “more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation” of Islam he now observed in the archipelago. He attributed this to Saudi influence. What Obama was picking up on was the concept of Arabisasi – ambitious in theory and even more influential in practice.
This is not at all what the world needs. People like myself hope that the world leads to a greater tolerance as a result of movement towards a greater secularisation. This puts such hopes and efforts into reverse.It continues:
Yet even though many Indonesian Salafis are standing on their own feet, there is still a tendency among Indonesian Muslims to idealise the traditions of the Gulf. Despite their great numerical advantage – there are more Muslims in the archipelago than in all the Gulf states combined – ideas rarely flow in the opposite direction. Indonesia’s Sunni Muslim establishment has, over the last few years, tried to project “Islam Nusantara”, or “Islam of the Archipelago”, on the world stage, but it remains ideologically muddled, and leans on platitudes such as “moderation” and “tolerance”.
As a result, Saudi Arabia’s image retains great power in both the religious and non-religious spheres. Indonesian Salafi clerics frequently cite Saudi scholars in their rulings, and nearly all ordinary Muslims save up to visit Mecca and Medina. Within Indonesia’s thriving Islamic-capitalist consumer economy, products depicting Mecca’s Kaaba shrine, from clocks to calendars, are ubiquitous. I once bought iced tea from a woman in Manado, in North Sulawesi, whose hijab was simply embroidered with the word “Saudi” in cursive script: kingdom as brand and logo.
Amid this general good will, Saudi Arabia has started to tweak the way it presents itself in Indonesia. The first Saudi ambassador I met in Jakarta, Osama bin Mohammed al-Shuaibi, in 2017, had a stern manner. Dressed in the traditional flowing thawb and checked red headdress, he grew angry when I asked him about the role of Wahhabism in Saudi diplomacy, and railed against what he saw as Iran’s meddling overseas. But his successor Esam Althagafi, whom I met a week after his appointment in 2019, was both more forthcoming and more westernised. He wore a crisp navy suit and tie, and spoke perfect English.
“The way we see it, Indonesia is a member of Vision 2030,” Althagafi told me, referring to the plan by Muhammad bin Salman, the 34-year-old Saudi crown prince, to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil and develop sectors such as health, culture and tourism. “We’re looking at the country’s economy,” Althagafi said. “Not just religion.” He even entertained my questions about Saudi proselytisation – while his predecessor was guarded, the new ambassador admitted that it was at the heart of the two countries’ relationship.” But today, we have nothing to hide,” he said. “Everything we do here, from Qur’an competitions to Ramadan iftars, is at the request of Indonesian Muslim groups.” Of course, Islamic affairs remain a priority, Althagafi told me. But he pointed out that the Saudi embassy was now ploughing resources into Arabic language programmes in Indonesia, positioning itself, in that respect, alongside cultural organisations such as the British Council and the Alliance Francaise.
Given the obscure ways in which Saudi dawa has operated in the past, this change in rhetoric is notable. But there is very good reason to be sceptical about Vision 2030, which has been criticised for being economically unfeasible and for papering over human rights issues in order to burnish bin Salman’s image. It is hard to believe in the supposed reformist promise of the prince and Vision 2030 when, midway through the publicity campaign in 2018, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in a Saudi consulate.
It will take at least a few years to determine whether the Saudi role in Indonesia has truly shifted. What is certain, though, is that over the past half-century, Saudi dawa has never been one fixed thing. Maintaining an ossified image from 10 or even 20 years ago is the biggest obstacle to understanding how Saudi money – and Saudi soft power – work today.
The key is pretty much always globalisation and economics (and the education, health, welfare, secularisation and other things that go along with this).
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