When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman landed in Indonesia on Wednesday, he became the first Saudi monarch to visit the world’s largest Muslim-majority country since 1970. Officials in Jakarta hoped the visit would help them strengthen business ties and secure $25 billion in resource investments, but Saudi Arabia has, for decades, been making investments of a different sort—those aimed at influencing Indonesian culture and religion, notes Jakarta-based analyst Krithika Varagur. Since 1980, Saudi Arabia has devoted millions of dollars to exporting its strict brand of Islam, Salafism, to historically tolerant and diverse Indonesia, she writes for The Atlantic:
It has built more than 150 mosques (albeit in a country that has about 800,000), a huge free university in Jakarta, and several Arabic language institutes; supplied more than 100 boarding schools with books and teachers (albeit in a country estimated to have between 13,000 and 30,000 boarding schools); brought in preachers and teachers; and disbursed thousands of scholarships for graduate study in Saudi Arabia. All this adds up to a deep network of Saudi influence.
“The advent of Salafism in Indonesia is part of Saudi Arabia’s global project to spread its brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world,” said Din Wahid, an expert on Indonesian Salafism at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta.
In the struggle against Islamic extremism, few groups have been fighting for longer than Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the Sunni organization that has become the global face of Indonesia’s pluralistic Islam, Varagar adds:
Founded in 1926 to prevent Saudi Arabia’s bitterly intolerant Wahhabism from taking root in Indonesia, it’s a cultural touchstone for Indonesians proud of their heritage of religious tolerance — and a symbol of moderate Islam worldwide. But NU’s work seems to be collapsing at home.
Saudi Arabia’s Anxious Autocrats
Saudi Arabia is one of several illiberal powers which have developed new tools and strategies to contain the spread of democracy and challenge the liberal international political order, according to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Authoritarianism Goes Global.
Saudi foreign policy “is largely non-ideological, realist, and defensive in intent, but negative in its implications for democracy,” argues analyst Frederic Wehrey.
“While the intent of [its] interference may not be explicitly antidemocratic, many of the recipients of Saudi support have been authoritarian and antiliberal,” he adds. “The ultimate effect has been damaging to the spread of democratization and political pluralism.”
Some of Indonesia’s leading jihadists have passed through Saudi institutions, Varagar adds:
Although Salafism is largely “quietist,” or discouraging of political activity, there is a growing faction of Salafi jihadists in Indonesia, according to Din Wahid. In 1972, Saudi money helped to found the “ivy league” of jihadist pesantren, the Al-Mukmin school in Ngruki, Central Java. The Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah received funding from Saudi charities in the early 2000s. Salafi TV, YouTube channels, Facebook groups, and Telegram channels have become a fertile ground for female extremists and ISIS sympathizers in Indonesia in the last few years, according to a 2017 report from the Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC).
“We’ve been seeing some evidence of the transition from Salafism to extremism among female extremists of the ISIS generation,” said Nava Nuraniyah, an IPAC researcher. “On the other hand, though, Salafi ulama [scholars] in Indonesia are among the most vocal opponents of extremism,” she said, suggesting that Salafism acts as a bridge to extremism for some even as it acts as a deterrent for others.