Indonesia’s ‘mosque hunters’ help fight radicalism

Giving every mosque a digital identity will help keep tabs on money flows and encourage moderate Islam, the government believes.

Worshipers at the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. Indonesia is setting up a digital database to keep track of its more than 740,000 mosques.  Bloomberg

Emma ConnorsSouth-east Asia correspondentMay 7, 2021 – 12.00amSaveShare

The sun is still shining warmly as a group of worshippers enter Indonesia’s Grand Mosque of Banten in West Java. They wash their hands in an orderly queue and have their temperature checked by mosque officials before removing their shoes and putting them in plastic bags.

For hundreds of years, groups like this have been coming to the mosque, located in what is known as Old Banten, about 10 kilometres north of the provincial capital, Serang. Construction began in 1566 by Sultan Maulana Hassanudin. His burial site is here and so are some of his descendants, who help run the place today.

For many in Muslim-majority Indonesia, the mosque is as much the centre of the community today as it was in the 16th century. The Great Mosque of Banten pulls in pilgrims from across the country, but more humble structures are also a lifelong constant for those who live close, come daily to pray and contribute what they can afford to the mosque’s education and charity work. They are a world unto themselves that, like much of Indonesia, has largely operated outside the formal economy. This is very slowly changing as individual mosques gain digital identities.

The transformation is part of a nationwide verification process that began back in 2013. It aims to disseminate information to its 225 million Muslims, cut back on crime by reducing cash donations and help connect mosques with new opportunities.

Aside from delivering an approximate answer to the question of just how many mosques there are in the world’s largest Muslim country, the goal is to create a central source of data on every mosque.

It also gives the government in Jakarta oversight on what’s happening in mosques that could help deter radical elements. While most in Indonesia identify as Sunni Muslims, those mosques where preachers or administrators follow other ideologies – including Wahhabi, Ahmadiyah, Shia and Gafatar – are also included in the process.

The information won’t be made public, but any intelligence that could help identify radical clerics is especially timely now, with so many young men left unemployed by the collapse of tourism and other job losses across the economy. Cutting off radical Islam messaging at the source is a priority.

Poor box: Donations collected at the Sultan’s tomb in the Great Mosque of Banten. Electronic donations using QR codes are encouraged as thieves pilfer paper money left in donation boxes. Natalia Santi

The Great Mosque of Banten is ahead of the game. It already has a 15-digit identifying code: The first three numbers define the type of mosque, the next six are the code for the particular geographic area and the remaining sequence the mosques in that area.

The code is a sign the Great Mosque has been registered and verified by an official who visited the site.Advertisement

In 2019, former vice-president Jusuf Kalla said: “Only God knows how many mosques there are in Indonesia. Some say it could be a million. I’ve always thought it was around 800,000, but one million could also be correct.”

When the count began at Kalla’s direction, the Ministry of Religion thought there were about 741,000 mosques and smaller, mushallas or prayer rooms, across the country, Fakhry Affan, the government official in charge, says.

As of April 16, some 277,289 mosques and 325,455 mushallas, or 81 per cent of the expected total, had been verified. The target for this year is to reach 90 per cent. The count of verified institutions can change each day with more than 5000 officials or so-called ‘mosque hunters’ across the country authorised to update the electronic record.

“The difficulty in collecting data lies in the fact that 99 per cent of mosques are built by the community, not by the government,” Fakhry says. “It’s rare for one to close, but there are always new ones opening.”

The places I have been: Mosque counter-in-chief Fakhry Affan in front of the Kenari Mosque in Serang. Natalia Santi

For the past eight years, his work on the Mosque Information System (Simas) has taken Fakhry across Indonesia. Some of his most rewarding work has been helping communities revive mosques that have fallen into disrepair. In Aceh, certification of an 80-year-old building nearly swallowed by the jungle has helped generate funds to repair and put the mosque back at the centre of the local community.

That mosque was photographed using drones. These have proved invaluable for pinpointing the humble and mapping the grand. The grounds of the Great Mosque of Banten, for instance, stretch over 20,000 square metres – roughly three soccer fields. In the vast courtyard, giant umbrellas block out the beating sun.

There are plans to give everybody access to at least a subset of the data collected by Simas. The Ministry of Religion plans to release an app called Info Masjid (Mosque Info) so Muslims across their country can use their smartphones to find places of worship nearby.

Electronic donations

Longer term, the government of President Joko Widodo believes an accurate, up-to-date mosque data registry will also help the nation advance up the ranks of sharia economies. Last year, Indonesia had the fourth largest such economy – defined by financial products and other goods and services that accommodate sharia law – up from 10th in 2018, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report.

And in a nation where half the population remains unbanked, acquiring a digital identity will also allow mosques to accept electronic donations that land in the mosque’s registered bank account.

Once they have been verified by Fakhry’s team, the places of worship are encouraged to use QR codes to collect donations. Paper money left in donation boxes has proved an easy target for thieves.

How much money goes through the mosques is an open question.

At Old Banten, the Great Mosque benefits from tradition. Every Muslim adult is expected to take part in the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. With a set number of places allocated to each country, the wait was long for Indonesians, even before the pandemic.

Looking down from the minaret at the Great Mosque of Banten. Natalia Santi

While domestic travel is restricted to a degree, many can still visit the Great Mosque, where those undertaking the Hajj often came first, to ask for blessings from their ancestors, explains Haji Tubagus Ahmad Faisal Abbas, deputy chairman of mosque management.

Visitors come in their thousands and most donate, although mosque management is reluctant to go into too much detail. Faisal Abbas says that if worshippers gave 10,000 rupiah (about $1), each time they came to the mosque, its income could reach 80 billion rupiah ($8 million) per year. Wooden collection boxes are scattered across the complex.

The goal now is to get a QR code onto those boxes. This would increase donations, the Ministry of Religion’s Fakhry believes, as well as protecting mosques from theft.

These codes could also make for quieter neighbourhoods. Indonesians are used to mosques seeking donations over loudspeakers. By using QR codes on site, and also on posters, banners as well as via social media and Indonesia’s favourite method of communication – WhatsApp – the need for noisy exhortation diminishes.

Indonesia’s central bank, Bank Indonesia, has confirmed mosques are among the institutions it is targeting to shift to electronic payments. It’s all part of the country’s plan to track more of the money shifting around the country.

Those involved hope that verification will help prove the old adage of sunlight being the best disinfectant. Securing and extending the role of the mosque in the community could also help curb Islamic radicalism.

“Many clerics and those who come to worship at the mosques believe greater transparency is a good thing, particularly given the large sums of money some imams manage,” Fakhry says.

source Indonesia’s ‘mosque hunters’ help fight radicalism (

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