Amid fears of rising Islamic radicalism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country Indonesia, authorities are targeting the nation’s universities. Some have become breeding grounds for extremism.
Last month, under prodding from the government, thousands of students across the nation made an anti-radicalism pledge. It followed an unprecedented gathering in late September of some 3,000 academics in Bali, who also pledged to fight extremism and defend the non-Islamic constitution.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo banned hardline group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) earlier this year on the basis that its ideology contradicts the official one of Indonesia – Pancasila – which enshrines religious pluralism and tolerance.
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A viral video last year showed students at an Indonesian university declaring their allegiance to establish a caliphate as dictated by HTI, drawing concern from authorities.
“Radical organisations can spread like a virus in universities,” said Professor Muhammad Sirozi, rector of the State Islamic University Raden Fatah in Palembang on Sumatra.
“These are not the organisations that students form themselves, but they are from outside,” he said at a briefing that outlined ways to help universities tackle radicalism following the Bali conference.
Students support a caliphate
Survey data released last week by Jakarta-based Mata Air Foundation and Alvara Research Centre showed that one in five high school and university students in Indonesia reported to support the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the archipelago.
“This indicates that intolerant teachings have already entered top universities and high schools,” said the report’s authors.
“The government and moderate Islamic organisations must start taking tangible steps to anticipate this and be present in student circles with language that is easy for them to understand.”
About a quarter of 4,200 Muslim students in the research – which was conducted across a range of academic faculties in 25 of the top universities in Indonesia – said they were, to varying degrees, ready to wage jihad to achieve this aim.
Hizbut Tahrir, an international organisation established by a Palestinian Islamic scholar in 1953, has been banned in many Muslim-majority countries and in fact operates predominantly in Western democracies.
One of its former members in Indonesia is Bahrun Naim, who went to fight for Islamic State in Syria and is accused of masterminding a series of attacks in Indonesia since early last year.
An officially registered organisation in Indonesia since 2000, HTI has sought a judicial review in the constitutional court over its disbanding.
“They never gave us a chance to defend ourselves. Is it not an authoritarian and repressive action?” said HTI spokesman Yusanto, who likened the crackdown to the tactics used against opponents under former strongman President Suharto.
Asked whether HTI was still operating, Yusanto said no one could ban members from their duty to do “Dakwah” (missionary work) and those activities would continue.
Universities ripe for recruitment
One former HTI member, Ayik Heriansyah, said the group tries to enlist support from influential members of society and sympathisers in the security forces to overthrow governments, or what it terms “the handing over of power”.
Universities have been a key recruiting ground. Heriansyah, who was once chairman of HTI at the University of Indonesia, said potential recruits were usually invited to an Islamic study group.
After about three months, they might be asked to participate in intensive Hizbut Tahrir study, said Heriansyah, who said left the group after a falling out with its central board.
Indonesia has 394 state universities and about 3,000 private ones. Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir told reporters in July that HTI members were lecturers “in many universities”. He warned they could be sacked unless they proffer loyalty to Pancasila.
Yusanto said, however, no lecturers who were HTI members had been sacked. A Home Ministry spokesman said a task force set up to find members in the civil service had not found any so far.
Heriansyah said the ban on the group would simply push it underground. “They are still running the movement as usual, but with a new structure and stewardship,” he said.
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Targeting high schools
The group has also gained a strong presence in state universities that train public school teachers, meaning new teachers could spread HTI ideology to high school pupils.
A survey published last December by the Institute for the Study of Islam and Society, showed that 78 percent of 505 religious teachers in public schools supported implementing sharia law in Indonesia. The survey also found that 77 percent backed Islamist groups advocating this goal.
Muhammad Abdullah Darraz, director of the Maarif Institute, which promotes religious and cultural harmony, said HTI had targeted religious lessons at state high schools to spread its ideology.
Clerics offered their services for free, often with school principals and teachers being unaware of their affiliation, he told Reuters. HTI’s spokesman denied this was a strategy but said members were obliged to do missionary work without charge.
Indonesia’s biggest Islamic groups, the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which claim to have about 120 million members between them, back the crackdown on HTI.
Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, chairman of NU’s GP Ansor youth wing, said that Indonesia had been built by many religions and cultures, but “HTI came and wanted to change this diversity into one nation called an Islamic country.”
Additional reporting from Reuters.