Changing face of Indonesian Islam

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Some are concerned about the Arabization of young Indonesians. (Photo: Prive. Doc)

Hijrah movements are flourishing on Indonesian campuses, worrying some proponents of Indonesia’s more moderate traditions

IO – Walking through Indonesian college campuses today, it’s easy to spot the young women clad head-to-toe in black amongst the sea of students wearing jeans and brightly colored batik. These women in black, along with many of their male classmates, have recently “hijrahed.” In Arabic, the word hijrah literally means, “to migrate or emigrate,” and is traditionally used to describe the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina. In Indonesia, the term has come to encompass a variety of movements and ideologies in which nominal Muslims are “born again,” and begin to seriously study religion. The movements are typically composed of young people who have little-to-no prior religious background and seek to become religious experts immediately, often switching out their modern clothes for long, dark, loose clothing for women, and ankle length pants and a beard for men, within the span of just a few months.

The biggest hijrah movements found on campuses in Indonesia are Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Tarbiyah, and Salafism.

HTI is the Indonesian branch of the global Hizbut Tahrir organization, which was banned by the Indonesian government in 2017 because its goal to form an Islamic Caliphate was deemed to be against the pluralist state ideology, Pancasila, which lists democracy as a founding principle of the Republic of Indonesia. HTI and its branches in other countries are not affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), and HTI members disagree with IS’s use of violence to achieve its goals.

The Tarbiyah movement is affiliated with the Islamist political party PKS and is inspired by Muslim Brotherhood ideology.

Salafism is a movement/ideology whose most prevalent faction is characterized by nonviolent Islamic puritanism (other types of Salafism include political and jihadi, but these appear in much smaller numbers). Its adherents typically eschew television, music, and interaction between the sexes.

While their specific ideologies differ, these organizations and movements all claim to embrace nonviolence, but also adopt a very narrow interpretation of Islam that is anti-pluralist. Salafi Instagram handles and other social media platforms are filled with memes and articles defending the use of the term kafir, a word that means “non-Muslim,” but is usually interpreted as a pejorative term. They also discourage interaction with kafirs. An article on a popular Salafi website muslim.or.id claims it is forbidden for followers of the Sunnah (the habits and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to initiate a greeting with a non-Muslim. Furthermore, if a kafir begins the greeting, Salafis are instructed as follows: “Their greetings are obviously filled with bad prayers to us. So we answer wa ‘alaikum (and so to you).”

For many years, Islamic thinking in Indonesia was dominated by two organizations: Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Muhammadiyah was founded in 1912 by religious thinkers who had studied in the Arabian Peninsula and wanted to rid Indonesian Islam of its cultural influences, which date back to the era when Hindu, Buddhist, and Animist beliefs dominated the archipelago. NU was founded in 1926 as a reaction against Muhammadiyah’s purge of tradition and has grown into the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, and indeed the world, claiming between 30 and 50 million members (depending on the source). Because of their long history and sheer size, Islam promoted by NU and Muhammadiyah is typically considered mainstream, and NU in particular has for years been labeled as “tolerant” and “moderate” Islam by Westerners. Indeed a popular refrain heard from Western journalists and scholars is that Indonesian Islam could be an antidote to the conservative and jihadist Islamic movements found in the Middle East and around the world.

The traditional dominance of NU and Muhammadiyah has been challenged in recent years by hijrah movements, which are prominent on state university campuses where students typically lack a background of Islamic education in a traditional religious institution. Students who attend NU’s religious boarding schools, or pesantren, as middle or high schoolers learn Arabic and study a wide range of Islamic scholars and texts. These studies are typically complemented with a more modern and secular curriculum, producing well-rounded and well-informed graduates who are ready for the rigors of their university studies and are unlikely to be convinced by the “get-religion-quick” pitch by hijrah groups on campus.

These hijrah groups have appeared in greater numbers since the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998, which marked the end of state repression of non-approved Islamic groups and movements. This was accompanied by the rise of the middle class in Indonesia. Many upwardly mobile Indonesians began sending their children to secular public schools, which they felt could better prepare their children for college than traditional pesantren. As a result, many millennials and members of Generation Z have grown up without an Islamic education and are perfect targets for hijrah movements.

The lack of religious education of many students entering state universities is just one of several factors that make campuses a prime place for hijrah movements to recruit new members. As in many developing countries, STEM subjects tend to be popular college majors, particularly among the new middle class, who see a career in medicine or engineering as the key to job security and social advancement. However, in countries like Indonesia that have not adopted a liberal arts curriculum, students are siloed as early as high school in their respective subjects, with STEM students only taking STEM classes. This, many critics fear, leaves them without valuable critical thinking skills.

Danang, a math professor at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta, one of the most prestigious universities in Indonesia, expressed his thoughts about the hijrah phenomenon among STEM students:

“If you learn mathematics and you learn religion after that, the logic of mathematics will influence how you learn religion. So how they see religion is also influenced by how they learn the subject. And we in [STEM] always see what is right and what is wrong… And they always see what the pattern is or what the rule is, and then they go that way without seeing what is behind the rule. It is because they don’t have time to learn religion very deeply, so then they just learn the logic of their subject. And then it’s more conservative, because they are not studying many other things, they just see the rule and how to follow the rule.”

Additionally, in Indonesia and elsewhere, moving to college is often a young person’s first time living away from home. For the first time, out from under their parents roof, they have the space to explore their own opinions and identity. But they are also often lonely, having arrived in a brand-new city where they may not know anyone. This is especially poignant in a collectivist society like Indonesia, where community is so central to existence. Hijrah movements provide instant friendly and supportive communities for these new students, who are often introduced to a movement through a new housemate, an older friend from high school studying in the same city, or are approached at mosques when they go alone by friendly strangers who show interest in their lives.

Fatimah*, a midwifery student at UGM, described finding Salafism through an older classmate she admired in her department: “In the department of medicine there was an older student who wore a long jilbab (hijab) and had very good character… her attitude was so good that I grew to really like her. I was drawn to her because her attitude was different from other peoples’.”

Joining a hirjah movement is similar to joining the rock-climbing club to make friends and have an outlet outside of school, but with the addition of spiritual fulfillment and the promise of eternal salvation. Perhaps not too unlike what students in other countries are looking for when they take up yoga or meditation, students who hijrah describe feeling empty inside and then finding happiness and purpose through the process of rebirth. Putri*, a student studying Electrical Engineering Education at State University Yogyakarta (UNY), said, “Early on I was just normal, even when I started university I was still normal. But then, during semester 6 or 7 if I’m not mistaken, I started to search to identify the emptiness inside me. Truthfully, I did not hijrah on purpose. It was because I felt that life was completely empty. Even though I hung out with friends, laughed, was happy … I would return to my boarding house sad, like I had no direction, ‘Where am I trying to go?’” Then, after her hijrah process, Putri “…felt comfortable, and my heart which was empty before now feels full.”

But some members of university administrations are worried that hijrah movements are not just innocuous ways to form friendships and find purpose. In February 2018, Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University Yogyakarta (UIN) banned the cadar (full face veil) on campus, announcing that it had been monitoring all 41 students who currently wore it, and that they would have to attend counseling sessions and eventually remove their cadars and renounce their “radical” ideologies. The decision sparked widespread backlash from government officials, leaders of Muhammadiyah, and hardliner groups alike and was repealed a few days later, only to be quietly reimplemented for incoming students the following fall semester.

The rector of UIN, which was an NU-leaning Islamic university before turning public in 2004, was concerned about the spread of anti-state movements/organizations such as HTI. However, when pressed about the different ideologies present on campus, most officials cannot differentiate between HTI, which is anti-state and does not require women to wear a cadar; Tarbiyah, which is not anti-state and does not require women to wear a cadar; and Salafism, which is not anti-state, but for which most women choose to adopt a cadar. A vice rector at UIN told me about a conversation he had with a master’s student who only started wearing a cadar when she moved to Yogyakarta for school. She explained, “We wear it because it feels good, there is nothing else behind it.” But the rector told me “There is no way we can believe that… they always talk like this… because their ideology is underground.”

Even officials who do understand the difference between ideologies attempt to restrict hijrah movements on campuses because of their anti-pluralist beliefs. The dean of the humanities department at UGM doesn’t believe in banning the cadar but does attempt to control who can come and speak in her department’s musholla (small mosque). Above all, there seems to be a fear among administrators that “traditional” Islam in Indonesia is changing. According to the dean, “This is becoming a common phenomenon in Indonesia. These schools of Islam now seem to be replacing the schools that we already have; that is Islam that is very open, Islam that is moderate, Islam that is tolerant, Islam that values pluralism.”

But how tolerant is the “traditional” and “moderate” Islam being defended if the tolerance does not extend to nonviolent groups and movements that haven’t broken any laws, such as Tarbiyah and the Salafis? Students who have hijrahed believe that those who are opposed to them, who try to prevent them from dressing the way they want to dress and from inviting preachers to campus, are the ones who are intolerant. According to Fatimah, “The rector [of UIN] himself is perhaps not very open minded…”

The zeal to protect students from the spread of forms of Islam that are perceived as anti-state, and certainly at least anti-pluralist, may actually be increasing the amount of intolerance present on Indonesian university campuses. While it is perfectly legitimate for administrators and teachers to advocate for more exposure to critical thinking skills for STEM students, there is no evidence that Tarbiyah or the Salafis are anti-state or violent, even if they are anti-pluralist. So what are the grounds for this open discrimination?

Indonesian universities and society as a whole will be faced with difficult questions in the coming decade: How can universities successfully repress or limit the spread of movements that are against the law, such as HTI, without infringing on the rights of others to practice their religious beliefs (even if they are viewed as controversial or undesirable), while at the same time encouraging community-wide pluralist values? Because the hijrah trend shows no signs of soon abating, university administrations must address their definition of “tolerant” Indonesian Islam and accept new viewpoints into the fold as they seek to combat illegal, anti-state ideologies. (Carter Banker)

*These names have been changed.

Carter Banker was a 2018 Boren Fellow in Indonesia, where she also served as a visiting fellow at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta. She received her master’s from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2019.