JAKARTA, Indonesia — An entourage of 1,500 people, consisting of more than 800 delegates, 25 princes and 10 ministers. Over 500 tons of cargo, including two Mercedes Benz limousines and two electric elevators. Seven planes. All for a one-week trip to Indonesia.

The grandeur of the proposed visit by King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the monarch of Saudi Arabia, led analysts to predict that the 81-year-old and his friends were going to invest heavily—to the tune of $25 billion—in security, infrastructure, aviation, health, information, Islamic affairs and education.

King Salman came to Indonesia on March 1, 2017 in the most extravagant of fashions (Credit: Agus Suparto, Indonesian Presidential Palace.)

But all King Salman ultimately agreed to fund was a $1 billion state infrastructure project. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, having rolled out the red carpet literally and figuratively for his Saudi guests, made known his feelings about the whole affair: “I am surprised that when the king went to China, he signed [contracts over $65 billion],” he said. “I am a little bit disappointed, just a little.”[1]

Such a reproach of the Saudi kingdom rarely emanates from the Indonesian archipelago because their relationship is bound by a curious set of conditions that has more to do with the exchange of people than money. Widodo’s country is home to over 200 million Muslims, but Saudi Arabia allows in only 221,000 hajj pilgrims from Indonesia each year, so the queue for the faith-mandated trip to Mecca is a decade long. Lest the quota be reduced, Widodo must be careful not to offend the king. That is perhaps why, a few days later, he issued an apology and shifted the blame to Indonesia’s investment climate.

Their relationship is bound by a curious set of conditions that has more to do with the exchange of people than money.

But Salman had surely assessed the investment climate and knew of Widodo’s expectations when he decided to become the first Saudi king to visit Indonesia in 47 years. Which begs the question: If he and his entourage did not come to invest, what did they hope to accomplish with their historic visit?

At least part of the answer lies in education. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been funding scholarly exchanges, a flagship free school in Jakarta, and the construction of masjids (places of worship) and madrassahs (Islamic boarding schools) throughout Indonesia. The giving hasn’t been exactly charitable, as it has been coupled with an overt attempt to inculcate the Saudi official state theology: Wahhabism.

Indonesian students indoctrinated in puritanical Wahhabist thinking at Saudi schools are predisposed toward confrontations with the state and their society, leading to incidents of cultural conflict and, at times, terrorism. The king and his men came to Indonesia to take responsibility for the radicalism resulting from the teaching of their religious beliefs here in the archipelago.

Wahhabism in Indonesia

According to the Indonesian Islamic scholar Said Aqil Siradj, “Wahhabism is not terrorism… but its teachings are only a notch away from it.”[2] As the head of Nahdlatul Ulama, one of Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations, he has repeatedly voiced that sentiment to suggest that Wahhabism is inconsistent with Indonesian Islam.

As proof of his point, he cites the case of three students from a madrassah in Cirebon, west Java, who had been indoctrinated in Wahhabist ideology. They strapped bombs to their bodies and attacked a police station in their city, a church in Solo, east Java and a hotel in Jakarta last year.[3] Such incidents give credence to the contention that Wahhabist teachings are not compatible with Indonesian practices of culture and faith.

“I can understand why the majority of non-Muslims are fearful of Wahhabism,” Ulil Abshar Abdalla tells me. “Wahhabism is like a specter. It haunts traditional Islam everywhere and creates some strong negative sentiments, even among Muslims.”

Ulil’s educational pedigree gives him a unique perspective on what is, for now, a quiet but growing culture clash. As a child, he attended a traditional Javanese madrassah where his father served as the kyai (principal). But when it came time to go to college, he accepted a scholarship offer from the Saudi university in Jakarta, where Islam is taught from a Wahhabist perspective.

“I learned for five years at a Wahhabist institution,” he says, “and I do not deny some benefit in learning Islam from a Wahhabist point of view.” But the tension between the Wahhabist and traditional teachings of Islam is intensifying with the passage of time, and Ulil has ideas as to why.

“Many of the students who studied in Saudi Arabia and then come back here compete with each other for dominance, for position,” he says. “In order to gain authority, they have to come up with ever-wilder interpretations of Wahhabism because in order to win, they have to have an edge.” That’s helping make Indonesian Wahhabism more extremist and dangerous than the Saudi version, Ulil Abshar Abdalla warns. “In Saudi Arabia, people have been living with Wahhabism for a long time and some of them are fed up with it,” he says. “It’s not a heroic ideology anymore—it’s just part of the land.”

Unlike the majority of conflict-averse Indonesian Muslims, whose misgivings about Wahhabism are diminished by their desire to travel to its ideological crib, Ulil has been outspoken in his opposition to the inundation of Saudi Arabia’s signature strain of Islam here in Indonesia.

As a member of Jaringan Islam Liberal (the Network of Liberal Muslims), a group that aims to counter the growing influence and activism of militant and radical Islam in the archipelago, he has made a name for himself by standing up to conservative clerics and illiberal Islam, primarily through his writings, which occasionally draw the ire of militant Muslims.

That has sometimes put him in harm’s way. A group of Muslim clerics issued a death fatwa (judicial ruling) against him in 2002 in response to his publication of an article titled “Rejuvenating the Understanding of Islam.”[4] In 2011, a letter bomb addressed to him at Komunitas Utan Kayu injured the police officer who was called to defuse it.[5] Even at risk of martyrdom, Ulil keeps writing.

Komunitas Utan Kayu (literally, the Wood Tree Community) is where he suggests we meet to chat about the spread of Wahhabism in Indonesia and the king’s visit to his country. It is a fitting choice, as it was founded by fellow writer Goenawan Mohamed. These hallowed grounds were once home to his Tempo magazine, an Indonesian-language weekly newsmagazine comparable to Time that was twice shuttered for criticizing the authoritarian Suharto regime.

On the wall behind the cashier of the coffee shop tucked behind the main building, safely away from the main road, hangs a picture of Mohamad seated among a circle of activists engaged in debate. After I place my order, I study the picture and recognize another man, readily identifiable by his cleft upper lip, wild tufts of hair, and bright eyes: a young Ulil Abshar Abdalla.

I am surprised to see that many patrons are reading books, an exceedingly rare pastime here. It’s not just that they are reading, but what they are reading—books with titles such as Islam, Sekularisme, dan Demokrasi Liberal and Krisis Masa Kini dan Orde Baru (The Current Crisis and the New Order). Although Tempo’s offices are now located elsewhere, this coffee shop and its patrons maintain the news magazine’s tradition of discussing dangerous truths.

Ulil Abshar Abdalla and I at Komunitas Utan Kayu on February 1, 2017

Ulil is such a regular here that when he arrives, the wait staff bring him his coffee instead of a menu. He joins me at a small circular table in the middle of the open-air courtyard, and we quickly find we have much to discuss. His overuse of the word “exactly” in response to my comments signals that he thinks I know more than I do about Wahhabism and its influence in Indonesia, but his discursive quirk also encourages me to learn and advances our conversation quickly.

“There was a deep shock, in the 19th century, created by Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “This has not only affected Indonesia—it has migrated throughout the Muslim world. Wahhabism strikes right at the heart of the Islamic traditions that were so prominent in that era.”

The traditions he is referring to are the four maddhab, or schools of thought in Sunni Islam: Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Syafi’i. Wahhabists reject their teachings because they believe they became corrupted in the 600 years between the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)[6] and the founding of their movement by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.[7]

Ninety percent of Indonesian Muslims belong to the Syafi’i school of thought, which means that in Indonesia, Wahhabists disclaim the scholarship of native-born Ulama (scholars of Islam) and critique cultural practices with religious connotations that are not specifically described in the Qur’an because they believe them to be “bida’a” (literally, an invention).

Ulil believes that that contrarianism explains why Wahhabism won’t work in Indonesia. “What people dislike about Wahhabism is not its theological alternative, but its iconoclastic tendency to delegitimize the cultural practices we have, like visiting tombs or doing tahlil[8] (reciting Arabic phrases at birth-oriented ceremonies). That’s the center of popular Islam… and that’s exactly what Wahhabism attacks.”

For now, these attacks on cultural practices burn only as embers. A family member refuses to visit grandpa’s grave after Eid holidays, and the chagrined family is forced to go without him. A new parent makes clear he won’t hold an aqiqah (a baby-naming ceremony), and his family just has to accept it. One of the people who told me such a story referred to Wahhabism as “api dalam sekam,” or hot coals wrapped up in a corn husk.

If ever a conflagration were to occur, cultural contrarianism would likely be the catalyst. An intercultural power dynamic is at play here, with some people confusedly thinking Saudi Arabian Islam is somehow more pure than Indonesia’s.

Over the past few years, I’ve sensed an increase in the mania for all things Arabia. During Islamic holidays, people have increasingly greeted each other with the Arabic “minal aidin wal faidzin” instead of the Indonesian “mohon maaf lahir bathin.” I cite this example because when I’ve asked people what they think the Arabic phrase means, they answer with the Indonesian phrase—but that is not correct. Instead of humbly asking for forgiveness, they are unknowingly telling loved ones “we are part of the people who emerge victorious from struggle.”

But Ulil knew what it meant because in addition to being fluent in Indonesian, Javanese and English, he speaks both classical and modern Arabic. His childhood in Pati, east Java, involved intensive studies of Islam and classical Arabic, and he tells me that learning in a traditional madrassah prepared him well for his studies of modern Arabic in college. “I’m proud I attended LIPIA because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be as fluent as I am now.”

But the Saudi school Ulil attended teaches more than Arabic—LIPIA (Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Islam dan Bahasa Arab, or the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic), unabashedly advertises that it provides instruction in Wahhabi Islam. And King Salman wants that instruction spread and the institution expanded.

LIPIA: The Saudi Free School

Speaking in advance of the king’s visit, the Saudi ambassador to Indonesia, Osama Mohammad Abdullah Alshuaibi, underscored that King Salman places great importance on the teaching of Arabic in Indonesia and affirmed that one aim of the trip was to get approval to increase scholarships and open more schools.[9]

The Saudi monarch seems particularly interested in the expansion of LIPIA. He has pushed for permission to establish four satellite campuses elsewhere in the country.

The flagship campus was constructed in 1980. For most of the four decades that followed, it was not an accredited university. Upon seeking and being granted accreditation in 2015, LIPIA officials publicly proclaimed that it would pave the way for campus expansion.

But the religion minister, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, saw things differently. After granting accreditation, he publicly expressed his concern that LIPIA was not upholding Indonesia’s state philosophy of Pancasila, which recognizes multiple religions and mandates tolerance. Such concerns are well-founded: When a journalist asked the head of LIPIA’s Arabic-language department if the school intends to uphold Pancasila, Hammed al-Sultan replied, “Pancasila… sorry, what is that again?”

Since its inception, LIPIA has been on a collision course with Indonesian Islam, but it has flown under the radar for decades for a number of reasons. For the first 20 years of its existence, the school caused no problems for the authoritarian second president, Suharto. As Wahhabists do not recognize secular states, they do not draw the attention or ire of dictators.

A second reason the school had escaped scrutiny is the lack of any internal pushback from students. Saudi Arabia has fully funded everyone who has ever enrolled at LIPIA, even offering some students stipends to attend and post-graduate scholarships to spend time in the kingdom after graduating, so students are understandingly reluctant to bite the hand that feeds. Besides, students who felt uncomfortable with the curriculum were always free to leave.

A third reason the school had evaded observation is that Indonesia’s teacher educators and evaluation teams focus on accredited schools that have registered with an Indonesian ministerial office. By remaining unaccredited for the 35 years, the school slipped through the cracks of Indonesia’s bureaucracy.

The problems of accreditation and expansion pale in comparison to those of radicalization, but they may have created the conditions for it. That is one of the issues that brought King Salman and his crew to the negotiating table with President Widodo and Indonesian educational officials.

Because all of LIPIA’s funding and most of its staff come from Saudi Arabia, the school’s culture has been tethered to that country’s cultural politics. As a result, the kingdom’s conflicts have flowed outward into subaltern spaces such as LIPIA. Years ago, King Salman undertook a program of deradicalization to combat religious extremism in his own country, relieving Wahhabist professors in Medina and Riyadh of their duties at their respective universities if their opinions were deemed to be too radical.

That marks a key difference between the cultural contexts of the two countries: in a monarchy, the king sets and moves the lines of law as he pleases. In a democratic country like Indonesia, which offers citizens a wide degree of freedom, the leader does not have the same amount of political clout to constrain the spread of the Saudi strain of Islam. That would be further exacerbated if professors ousted from Saudi Arabia for ultra-conservativism decided to relocate to foreign Saudi schools.

Indonesia’s live-and-let-live approach to life may be particularly ill-suited to exposure to radicalism, which may still be flowing into its education spaces via what I call Saudi philanthrocapitalism.

Although Ulil has since fallen away from the network, his understanding is that a lot has changed there due to recent developments in the war on terror and pressure on Saudi Arabia. He tells me he heard the school went through a deradicalization program at some point, but I have not been able to find any record of it.

Even if it had, there is a good possibility that some of the seeds sown among the minds of Indonesians when he was there for five years in the 1990s evaded any such sweeping, which would have focused predominantly on educational spaces.

“In class, Saudi professors taught the Wahhabism they grew up with. But many of them had also been indoctrinated into the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, and outside of class, they had extra meetings where they had other conversations,” he recalls. “Many students went to those meetings.”

The combination of Wahhabism and the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood fosters imaginations of a self-purifying Islamic state—a vision that is antithetical to the agglutinating narrative of multi-religious, plural Indonesia. It is that idea of Indonesia that Ulil is trying to protect when he tells me, “If you mix [Wahhabi] purifying doctrine with this idea of an Islamic state, it’s like a dangerous chemical reaction.”

The Power of the Monarch

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia is heavily structured by the exchange of people, and Indonesians have compelling reasons to seek a renegotiation of terms. Total trade between the countries amounted to only $4 billion last year. Indonesians spend half that amount in a single month while on the hajj.

Due to Saudi restrictions on the import of Indonesian goods, their biggest import is domestic workers. That is already changing. After the discovery that 300 Indonesian migrant workers were being abused and held against their will in a Riyadh shelter only a month after King Salman’s visit, President Widodo took the bold step of implementing a ban on sending domestic workers to Saudi Arabia and 20 other Middle Eastern countries.[10] Quotas be damned.

Indonesia is discovering that it has leverage of its own. King Salman’s desire to expand the LIPIA network in Indonesia even in the face of insulting noninvestment hints at just how important Arabic and Wahhabist education programs are to his longer-term plans. To exercise leverage here, Indonesia must strengthen its enforcement of educational administration, evaluation and certification policies.

Philanthropic giving in foreign educational spaces enables ideologies to permeate borders and hegemonize minds. Those ideas sometimes operate as invasive species, choking the traditional cultural practices that previously dominated. That is cause for concern, and cleaning up the ocean of ideas will require concerted efforts and outside help.

But as Ulil notes, things may not be as dire as they seem. “Cultural practices are the backbone of any society,” he says, “and it is the cultural practices of Muslim societies that will determine how they handle the modern, postcolonial conditions we all live in today.”

[1] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/04/14/i-held-up-umbrella-for-king-salman-yet-china-gets-the-investment-jokowi.html

[2] All translations are my own and as true to the speakers’ intentions as the languages allow.

[3] http://www.bbc.com/indonesia/berita_indonesia/2016/05/160506_indonesia_radikalisasi_wahabi

[4] https://web.archive.org/web/20070513061236/http://www.kompas.com/kompas-cetak/0211/18/opini/meng04.htm

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QC-7gtjD57E

[6] “pbuh,” or peace be upon him (in Arabic, “SA”, or sallallahu alahi wasallam), is a tag placed behind any mention of the name of the Prophet Muhammad. I include it here to show respect to him and my Muslim readers.

[7] A pact signed by al-Wahhab and Muhammad bin Saud in 1744 led to the formation of what is now known as Saudi Arabia.

[8] A brief explanation of what Tahlil is, when practiced, and a somewhat biased justification for it appear at: https://chasingparadisegalz.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/what-is-tahlil-and-mawlid/

[9] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-01/saudi-king-salman-and-entourage-visit-indonesia/8312724

[10] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/04/03/trafficked-and-abused-in-saudi-arabia-indonesian-workers-scramble-to-go-home.html