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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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  • Unelected Leader

    US, EU, Australia, Canada have no credibility on human rights or anti extremism. They ALL do business with the regime in Beijing, as well as Saudi and/or Iran.
    Whenever a European, Canadian, American, or Australian politician starts talking human rights just twiddle your finger on your lip and make farting noises because they’re LYING to you.

    • Proverbs1618

      Prattling on about human rights makes one feel enlightened, and therefore worthy to impose your will on others. See Obama, Barack

      • Unelected Leader

        Yes. Thankfully it’s a gimmick that is quickly losing its luster. Watching Xi Jinping give the keynote speech at Davos was just an absurdity haha

  • Disappeared4x

    Might want to check sales of Kretek cigarettes to measure Salafi influence in Indonesia. Sales are forecast to grow 1-3% annually.
    Did the WSJ mention the nanny and maid shortage since Indonesia banned the exports of domestic servants to the GCC since 2015?

    July 26, 2016 ABU DHABI “Indonesian maids are still being trafficked through the UAE, even after their country banned them from working in the GCC. Their embassy is sheltering 150 maids – some of whom are teenagers – who faced problems such as disputes with their employers, physical assault, non-payment of wages, passports being held and unauthorised travel, said Husin Bagis, Indonesia’s newly appointed ambassador to the UAE.

    A ban in place for more than 18 months has prevented Indonesian housemaids from working in the region after widespread reports of exploitation but there is still a risk of Indonesians being employed as maids after entering the country on visit visas. …”

  • Greg Olsen

    While Saudi funding of Salafi institutions is one issue, the larger issue is the role of technology. As soon as cheap air travel became widely available in the Muslim world in the 1960s, the hajj was opened to many more people. The exposure to “more authentic” Islam and the status of those who take the title of Haj was bound to impact the syncretistic Islam of Indonesia. (I use “authentic” advisedly, because Saudi’s brand of Islam is a historic artifact–a premodern revival movement that was outside the Islamic juridical mainstream in the 18th century.) It is perceived as more authentic because of the KSA’s status as guardians of Mecca and Medina. Furthermore, its austerity works in its favor as more primitive and therefore more authentic–to draw a less than perfect analogy, the austerity of Calvinism enhanced its claim to authenticity in the Reformation.

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