By Krithika Varagur
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 stayed on.
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 Taimiyah.
“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.
‘The 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 involved.
“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 culture.”
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.”