Salafism Abroad
Indonesia’s Saudi Arabia Problem

A Saudi entourage led by King Salman is visiting Indonesia for a 12-day investment drive, a trip that the Wall Street Journal depicts as an attempt to capitalize on the two countries’ harmonious business interests and Muslim identities:

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has been pushing for more foreign investment in infrastructure in his resource-rich country, views the trip in part as an opportunity to draw Saudi investment to oil and other projects on some of Indonesia’s largest islands, including Sumatra and Borneo, Indonesia’s foreign minister told reporters.

The visit marks “a turning point” for two nations “united by Islam, brotherhood and a mutually beneficial relationship,” Mr. Widodo said in welcoming King Salman.  […]

King Salman’s monthlong trip to Asia includes building ties with predominantly Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority nation, as well as Brunei and the Maldives. The king is scheduled to speak Thursday to the country’s parliament and to visit Jakarta’s Istiqlal mosque, the nation’s largest, and meet religious leaders.

What the Journal fails to mention are the deeper tensions that complicate the seemingly rosy relationship: namely, the growing concerns in Indonesia about Saudi funding of Salafi Islamic activity, which is having a profound impact on the nature of Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

Indonesia’s traditionally tolerant, syncretistic form of Islam has lately been losing ground to more hardline interpretations. The trial of the Christian governor of Jakarta, for instance, has been a triumph for puritanical Islamist movements, who successfully mobilized their ranks to push the authorities for a blasphemy trial. And many of those on the front line of that battle were nurtured in Saudi networks; for decades, the Saudis have spread their influence in Indonesia by extensively funding schools and mosques that teach a strict, Salafist version of Islam.

The Saudis see such educational efforts as benign soft power exercises, but many Indonesians believe that Riyadh is contributing to the country’s radicalization problem. Cities like Solo have become breeding grounds for Salafi radicalization, recent terrorist attacks have been inspired by Wahhabi extremists, and Indonesian alumni of Saudi institutions are increasingly gaining positions of influence in the government. For many moderate Indonesians, these troubling trends are the fruits of Saudi seeds planted long ago.

For all the dealmaking that is sure to happen during the trip, then, the tensions between Riyadh and Jakarta are something to watch. Saudi Arabia reportedly plans to raise the education issue, with a pitch to expand the number of Salafi schools and promote deeper religious and cultural ties. The reaction from the Indonesian side could provide a hint of whether Indonesia will begin to push back against Saudi influence—or open the door to it even further.

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