Indonesian Muslims at morning prayers in Yogyakarta during Eid al-Adha, the festival marking the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the Saudi holy city of Mecca, September 2016

Suryo Wibowo/AFP/Getty Images

Indonesian Muslims at morning prayers in Yogyakarta during Eid al-Adha, the festival marking the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the Saudi holy city of Mecca, September 2016

In 1980, Saudi Arabia started an all-expenses-paid university in Jakarta. The Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA), housed in a modern building sheathed in blue reflective glass, has produced tens of thousands of graduates trained in a strict, puritanical Salafi Islam in stark contrast to the relaxed, pluralist local Islam practiced by many Indonesians.1 Salafi Islam claims to restore the orthodox practices of the early days of the Muslim religion. Classes at LIPIA are taught in Arabic. Men and women are segregated; men are encouraged to grow beards and adopt Salafi dress with ankle-length linen pants and sandals, and women must be completely veiled. Jeans, music, and television are prohibited. The curriculum emphasizes learning the Arabic language and the study of Islam.

Now Saudi Arabia intends to dramatically expand the university, from 3,500 graduates to ten thousand graduates a year. It will sponsor a brand-new campus in Jakarta as well as branches in Medan, Surabaya, and Makassar.

In May, the departing Saudi ambassador to Indonesia, Mustapha al-Mubarak, told me that the new Jakarta campus should open next year. He was speaking to a small group of reporters invited to his lavish farewell dinner. “It was my dream to cut the ribbon, but I won’t be here for it,” he said, surrounded by men in flowing Arab dress. Mubarak claimed that the expanded university would help in the fight against ISIS since the Saudi version of Islam demands obedience to the ruler rather than revolutionary jihad. “The justifications used by ISIS are based on false teaching,” he said. “We need to protect our children and the best way is to teach pure Islam.” Guests were offered a buffet with lamb kebabs and roast beef in one section of the banquet hall, and dozens of desserts in another. As the ambassador spoke of the importance of spreading true Salafi Islam through education, local journalists lined up to collect their usual “envelopes”—containing rupiah notes worth about $20—from an employee.

Fights over competing versions of Islam have a long history in overwhelmingly Sunni Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and the Saudi-funded university now has a major part in the contemporary battle. How Indonesia responds to the planned Saudi expansion of LIPIA will be a crucial test for the government, since the Islam taught there rejects pluralism and democracy, as shown by Din Wahid, whose fascinating recent thesis, Nurturing the Salafi Manhaj: A Study of Salafi Pesantrens in Contemporary Indonesia, explores the Salafi networks in Indonesia. The country has been a democracy since 1998, when Indonesians forced the resignation of the longtime dictator Suharto. For some fifteen years, including under the current president, Joko Widodo, Indonesia has presented itself as a moderate Muslim-majority democracy that is tolerant and pluralist. Its officials love to say that more than any other country today, Indonesia has shown that Islam and democracy are compatible.

Yet throughout this sprawling archipelago there are increasing signs of religious intolerance and conflict, often targeting the small Shia community, while the rise in Salafi influence is palpable. Jakarta’s Saudi-funded university was originally founded in part as a response to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, as Sunni-led Saudi Arabia did not want the new Shia Islamic Republic of Iran to serve as a model for Muslims in Indonesia and elsewhere. Once again, in the current escalating global rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Saudis’ vast expansion plan involves Indonesia.

It will be up to Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs to approve the new LIPIA campus. Dr. Kamaruddin Amin, the ministry’s director-general of Islamic education, is leading the government in the negotiations. “We have not issued our permission yet,” he told me in a phone interview. “Moderate Islam is obligatory for every organization.” Amin said that he wants the Saudis to ensure that LIPIA students will be taught to love Indonesia, adhere to the national ideology, and promote democratic values. He also wants teachers from Indonesia to be included in the faculty. The current Saudi university does not follow these stipulations. The negotiations promise to be difficult.

It will be hard for the government to say no. Indonesia, despite a growing middle class, is still a poor country and is desperate to have more college graduates. Saudi Arabia is offering to build the new campus, expand the curriculum, and pay all the expenses for thousands of new students annually. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, sets quotas for the annual Hajj. Indonesia has the largest quota in the world—168,000 for 2015—yet there is still a twenty-year waiting list. The Indonesian government has requested ten thousand more places, but the Saudi government has not yet responded. “I hope it will work,” Amin told me in June, “The new university would be good for Indonesia.” Amin, who studied the history of Islam at the University of Bonn in Germany, is well aware of what is at stake. The decision, he said, will be made next year.


This decision goes to the core of the fight over the definition of Indonesian Islam. It is a religious battle as well as a political one. Since the early 1800s, there have been Muslims in the archipelago who call themselves Salafi because they devotedly follow the practices of “Salaf al-Salih,” the first three generations of Muslims who were with the Prophet Muhammad. In Indonesia’s democratic era, the Salafi movement has flourished alongside many other expressions of Islam, an active civil society, and highly contested elections. The ethnic and religious practices on the archipelago’s 17,000 islands are immensely diverse, but since about 87 percent of the population is Muslim it makes sense that the central political issue is defining the relation of Islam to the state after thirty-two years of dictatorship.

The democratic era has revealed that more progressive Muslims live in Indonesia than anywhere else, but they are in a constant conflict with a variety of conservative Muslim groups. Islamist parties have not done well in elections, yet many politicians, especially those from secular parties, compete to show the public that they are more devoutly Islamic than others. This creates a political tendency of ceding more power to conservative and Salafi Muslims than many Indonesians think they deserve.

Moreover, beyond the proposed expansion of the Saudi university, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have invested heavily in building religious schools and mosques throughout Indonesia. The Saudi embassy’s Religious Attaché Office grants scholarships for students to go to Saudi Arabia. It pays for preachers (known as “the Attaché preachers”) to give Friday sermons across Indonesia, and sends Arabic teachers as well.

Din Wahid, a lecturer at the State Islamic University in Jakarta—part of a large state system that has no connection to the Saudi-funded university—has for years been studying the emergence of Salafis in contemporary Indonesia and exploring the Salafi networks. He discovered that many pesantrens, or religious boarding schools, were started by Salafis, and he investigated how they operate and what they teach. He estimates that there are now a hundred pesantrens that follow the Salafi manhaj, or path. (There are about 28,000 pesantrens in Indonesia, most of them on Java.) “The contemporary Salafi movement in Indonesia,” he writes, “is part of a worldwide Salafi movement that receives full support of the Saudi Government.” Wahid’s nuanced and as-yet-unpublished thesis examines the complicated world of differing Salafi factions—ranging from nonviolent to jihadist—almost all of which originated with graduates from the Saudi university in Jakarta. Nurturing the Salafi Manhaj offers a map of Saudi influence from the Saudi university down to the growing Salafi movement, which remains relatively small although it probably involves several million Indonesians.

Delphine Alles, a political science professor at Université Paris-Est, concentrates on the role of Islam in shaping Indonesia’s foreign policy and international relations. Her book, Transnational Islamic Actors and Indonesia’s Foreign Policy: Transcending the State, is not for the lay reader, but it traces how the Indonesian government—at least in the foreign ministry—has belatedly woken up to the inroads that conservatives and Salafis have made in Indonesia.

Young progressive Muslims have been opposing what they call the Arabization of Indonesia for a long time. Earlier this year a liberal Muslim intellectual, Mohamad Guntur Romli, led a group that published a manifesto demanding freedom of opinion and a tolerant Islam. They called it Our Islam, the Islam of Nusantara (Islam of the Archipelago) and posted it online, free to download. Taken together, the work of Alles, Wahid, and Romli help untangle the intricate and carefully obscured question of how Saudi influence is exercised and how Indonesia is responding to it.

A good place to start unraveling Saudi influence is with the founding of LIPIA in Jakarta. It would never exist without Mohammad Natsir (1908–1993), one of Indonesia’s founding fathers, who, like Sukarno, the romantic revolutionary turned autocrat, launched his political career under the Japanese occupation during World War II. Unlike Sukarno, Natsir was very religious. When Sukarno announced Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands on August 17, 1945, Natsir had dreams of proclaiming Islam as the nation’s founding principle, but Sukarno forced Natsir to compromise since Balinese Hindus and Christians in the eastern islands would refuse to become second-class citizens.

A Saudi official explaining a maquette of the mosque at Mecca to members of the Indonesian military at  a Saudi-sponsored festival in Jakarta, March 2016

Donal Husni/NurPhoto/Getty Images

A Saudi official explaining a maquette of the mosque at Mecca to members of the Indonesian military at
a Saudi-sponsored festival in Jakarta, March 2016


The result was a constitution that guarantees equality and religious freedom, but also requires all citizens to believe in God. Natsir became prime minister, but he soon soured on the 1945 compromise and turned against Sukarno, whom he accused of ruining the country by embracing the atheist Communist Party. Disillusioned, Natsir joined a CIA-backed rebellion that failed, and he wound up in prison from 1962 to 1966. He watched from behind bars as Indonesia exploded in 1965 after a still-mysterious botched coup was blamed on the Communists, providing a pretext for a military-led massacre that left at least 500,000 Indonesians dead. By 1966, General Suharto had risen to power as a result of the mass murder, and Natsir assumed that he would return to the center of power. It was not to be. Suharto continued to deny Natsir any serious position in the regime’s suppression of political Islam, although the military had made use of Muslim Indonesians to carry out many of the killings.

Snubbed by Suharto, Natsir turned to preaching his stern, back-to-the-Koran brand of Islam and cultivating connections in Saudi Arabia. His Islamic Propagation Council, known as Dewan Da’wah, was founded in 1967, and served as the incubator for the Salafi movement. It also reopened a long-standing rift between Natsir’s followers, who for all their Salafism called themselves modernists, and Muslim traditionalists in Indonesia who follow a pluralist, local Islam infused with Hindu rituals and Sufi mysticism. Natsir and Salafis considered these local traditions to be ungodly contaminations of the true faith that must be purged.

In particular Natsir looked down on Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization in the world, which was founded in 1926, Wahid writes in Nurturing the Salafi Manhaj, to protect traditional Islam from the demands of Salafis to strip away local customs. NU’s very creation was a response to the seizure in 1924 of the holy sites in Mecca by the descendants of Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the attacks that eventually gave rise to modern-day Saudi Arabia.

Natsir developed a close relationship with King Faisal, and Dewan Da’wah became the main conduit for Saudi funds to Indonesia. One of the early beneficiaries, Wahid writes, was a religious school, Pesantren Ngruki, that opened in 1972 near Solo in central Java and is now infamous for its involvement in terrorism after the fall of Suharto. Natsir was its patron.

Natsir himself was not a Salafi (he was closer in his beliefs to the less orthodox and political Muslim Brotherhood), but he used his privileged position with King Faisal to expand Dewan Da’wah. Natsir also adamantly rejected violence against the Indonesian government, but he was still under suspicion during the 1970s and 1980s when Suharto’s regime repressed any dissent, especially dissent expressed through Islam. According to his biographer Audrey Kahin, Natsir’s closeness to King Faisal helped protect him.2 The king bestowed the “Faisal Award” on Natsir in 1980, the same year as the opening of LIPIA.

“The Saudi government is unique: it trusts individuals more than institutions or organizations,” Wahid points out, and Natsir was that individual. Wahid’s thesis adds a new perspective on the close cooperation between Natsir and the Saudi government in creating the modern Salafi movement.

The Saudi university that now sits on a major road in South Jakarta is technically a branch of the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. The heart of the curriculum at LIPIA is the writing of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), considered a fanatic in his lifetime but now seen as the authority who preserved the Saudi version of pure Islam. In addition to demanding obedience to the ruler, Wahhab’s writings say that Muslims who incorporate local customs are apostates. He calls Christians and Jews sorcerers and enjoins pure Muslims to avoid such heretics.

In the 1990s, according to Wahid in Nurturing the Salafi Manhaj, Natsir and the former director of LIPIA handpicked three graduates and sent them to the Middle East for further study. They returned and started the Salafi schools that form the backbone of the modern Salafi movement. Wahid’s study shows that the democratic era that began in 1998 has been a godsend for Salafis. Like other Indonesians, they are now free to propagate their ideas and version of Islam in the open, even though Salafis reject democratic values that protect women’s and minorities’ rights. Wahid describes the rapid rise in the number of Salafi radio stations, TV channels, and websites seeking followers not just in Indonesia but across Southeast Asia.

The democratic opening has also led to the emergence of Salafi jihadism, though only a tiny number of Salafis have moved from quietism to jihad. One major example is Natsir’s beneficiary, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, and his Pesantren Ngruki, which got its start with Saudi support. As soon as Suharto fell, Ba’asyir returned to Solo in central Java and became the spiritual guide of Jemaah Islamiyyah, which developed links to al-Qaeda and was responsible for the Bali bombings that killed 202 people in 2002.

When I interviewed Ba’asyir at Ngruki shortly after the bombings, he played with his white beard and chuckled: “Democracy has been good to me.” It was his joke: democracy had allowed him to resume his jihad, but he condemns democracy as a form of idolatry since it puts the votes of citizens above the sovereignty of God. In 2011, Ba’asyir was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for supporting terrorism. Meanwhile, he has pledged his allegiance to ISIS.

The Saudi university certainly does not intend to produce terrorists, and in fact, many of its former students are not Salafis at all. For example, Ulil Abshar Abdalla not only rejects Salafi ideas; after leaving LIPIA he went on to form the Liberal Islam Network and is a well-known activist for a liberal interpretation of Islam that stresses equality as the central value of the religion. When I saw him in May, I asked him about the plans to expand LIPIA. “It is very bad news for Indonesia,” he said. For him, everything about the Saudi university is hostile to local culture and the pluralist nature of Indonesian Islam.

Anis Matta, another graduate, was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood while a student at LIPIA. He emerged as a leader of the student movement against Suharto in the 1990s and, immediately after Suharto’s fall, helped found PKS, the fastest-growing Islamist party. Matta went on to be its secretary-general and then its president. He considers himself a democrat, not a Salafi. In May he told me: “I don’t want to get involved in the Sunni–Shia fight.”

Another LIPIA graduate, Farid Okhbah, represents an important faction of the growing power of Salafis. In April 2014, Okhbah and a group of hard-line Muslim groups announced the National Anti-Shia Alliance (ANNAS) to prevent the spread of what it considers heretical Shia teachings and to demand that the government ban Shiism. This announcement came after a series of anti-Shia attacks took place in parts of East Java.

Experts guess that there are maybe 2.5 million Shias in Indonesia, out of a population of 250 million.3 But when I visited Okhbah in May, he insisted that Shiism was a bigger threat to Indonesia than communism was in the 1960s. “Iran is paying for this Shia spread in Indonesia. Iran has a long plan on how to make Indonesia influenced by Shia,” he told me when we met in his home in Bekasi, where he has opened a Salafi school. “The plan is to bring students to Iran, turn them into Shia, and then they come back and build pesantren and then they make more Shia.”

Okhbah is considered by many I talked to as one of the “Attaché Preachers” supported by Saudi Arabia. He denied this, but conceded that he has had a long relationship with the Saudi-funded university, working there for fourteen years as a librarian. His claims about Iranian funding flowing into Indonesia are as hard to verify as claims about the amounts of Saudi funding. The Iranian government has built a large Islamic Center not too far from the Saudi university, and pro-Iranian groups have appeared at various universities. Iran’s growing influence, experts say, has led to a heightened Saudi effort to expand its presence in Indonesia.

The success of the Salafi movement and its Saudi funding have, not surprisingly, provoked a backlash from two large Muslim organizations: Nahdlatul Ulama, which claims 40 million followers, and Muhammadiyah, which claims 29 million. Muhammadiyah was formed in 1912 to provide services, such as hospitals and schools, where the Dutch had failed to do so. It concentrates now on purifying the faith while uplifting Muslims to succeed in the modern world.

In recent years, the leaders of both organizations have opposed the Salafis, who are poaching their followers. Last year, both organizations devoted their congresses to proclaiming that Indonesian Islam is nationalist, pluralist, moderate, and democratic. NU’s leadership drew on the ideas of intellectuals such as the manifesto writer Mohamad Guntur Romli and embraced Islam Nusantara as a way to fight Salafis and Saudi influence. Muhammadiyah says it is closest to Islam Berkemajuan, or Progressive Islam.

In 2015, President Widodo opened both congresses. This alliance between the government and loyal, nationalist Muslim organizations is the theme of Alles’s book, but she fails to analyze the gap between the nationalist Islam rhetoric, which sounds relatively open-minded, and the growing intolerance among Indonesians. During the 2000s the government, especially under the previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, encouraged conservatives and Salafis with both money and political support, while extolling the large mainstream Muslim groups as exemplars of moderate Islam.4

Alles describes how this alliance has led to countless international conferences and interfaith dialogues. I attended one of them in mid-May at a fancy hotel in Jakarta. While huge crane cameras swooped around the convention hall, the chairman of NU insisted that his organization’s mystic, pluralist Islam Nusantara would defeat Salafism and ISIS because it was based on love of country. The conference emphasized NU’s newfound confidence. But the idea that Islam Nusantara can stop Salafi recruitment, much less ISIS recruitment, is far-fetched. For a Salafi, NU personifies bid’ah—impurities that are un-Islamic and heretical—and most Salafists view NU followers as infidels.

I asked a senior State Department official whether the US worries about Saudi influence in Indonesia. Yes, he said, especially since Salafi ideas can undermine the country’s young democracy. But he hopes that Indonesia’s active pluralism will be strong enough to absorb Saudi efforts. At present, he said, without solid evidence that the Saudis are directly funding terrorists, the US needs Saudi Arabia too much to do anything more than quietly watch.

Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s foreign minister from 2009 to 2014, told me that good relations with the Saudi kingdom are important, not least because of the Hajj quota. He admitted that despite all the international conferences and the talk of Indonesia being a model of moderate Islam, he sees increasing conservatism and intolerance. “What we’ve done hasn’t been successful enough,” he said.

Maybe we should pay more attention to Saudi influence. We have to be very refined in how we think about this, especially because many Indonesians are in awe of Saudi Arabia. If we take a heavy hand, it may have the reverse impact and [force Salafis] underground, making it harder to control. So far it’s been out of sight out of mind. Time for a fresh look.