Radical Islam’s penetration of Indonesia’s universities has alarmed President Joko Widodo’s government, providing further evidence that evolving religious conservatism and intolerance is changing the character of society nearly two decades after the birth of democratic rule.

National Intelligence Agency (BIN) director Budi Gunawan recently released the results of a 2017 survey showing that 39% of university students in 15 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces reject democracy and the pluralistic concepts of Pancasila, the state ideology.

Despite an overwhelming majority favoring democracy in other polls, the survey also found that 24% of college students and more than 23% of high school pupils supported violent jihad as a means to transform the world’s largest Muslim nation into an Islamic state.

Conservatism linked to political failings?

This is not the first time young Indonesians, many of them products of the so-called reformasi era, have demonstrated a deepening interest in religious conservatism that may have as much to do with the country’s political failings as it has to do with Islam.

Last October, another survey published by the Mata Air Foundation and the Alvara Research Center showed 20% of high school and university students supported the establishment of a caliphate ruled by a Muslim spiritual leader.

Only weeks earlier, more than 3,000 university rectors and lecturers from across the country had gathered in Bali to declare a common commitment to rooting out intolerance and radicalism on the nation’s campuses.

As in neighboring Malaysia, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats do not appear to make the connection between rising levels of religious piety and the stronger moral compass that should go along with it. Such hypocrisy, analysts believe, plays on younger minds.

Historically suspicious of civilians, the Indonesian military uses the same poor standing in which the governing elite is held to justify winning back a role in internal security and, by extension, some of the previous influence it enjoyed in domestic politics.

On a broader level, Asia Foundation country director Sandra Hamid says the normalization of intolerance, underlined by the 2017 downfall of ethnic-Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama on politicized blasphemy charges, should be seen in the context of a decades-long trend towards religious exclusivism.

Intolerant narratives, she concludes in an insightful paper for the Indonesian Centre for Law, Islam and Society (CILIS), are simply an amplification of what many ordinary Indonesians are already experiencing in their lives through social media and television.

Indonesian Muslim youths hold signs that say "according to Sharia Islam; non Muslim leader is forbidden" during a demonstration at the National Monument in Jakarta on February 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry
Young Indonesian women hold signs that say “according to Sharia Islam, non-Muslim leader is forbidden” during a demonstration at the National Monument in Jakarta on February 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Spotlight on universities

The targeting of universities has taken on new importance since police raided Sumatra’s Riau University in early June, seizing homemade bombs and arresting a former student for planning attacks on the provincial assembly in Pekanbaru.

Gunawan, a former deputy police chief and now a member of the five-man advisory board of the Indonesian Mosque Council, disclosed that three universities are under increased surveillance because of high levels of support for religious extremism.

He did not identify them, but at least one terrorism expert believes they are the University of Indonesia (UI), the country’s highest-rated learning institution, the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), the alumni of former president B.J. Habibie, and the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), where ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono earned his doctorate.

State institutions aside, researchers point to private religious schools, which either focus on a single Islamic identity or offer a narrow learning perspective that shuns Western values, as potential breeding grounds for extremist thought.

Analysts and counterterrorism experts say ideology is not always the primary motivator. In many cases, young people join extremist groups because of peer pressure, a powerful reason why an increasing number of women now wear jilbabs, a loose-fitting outer garment worn more commonly in Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Up until now, the state’s influence has been largely absent from university campuses, allowing radicalization to flourish through social networks and humanitarian work, where students feel accepted and appreciated.

The troubling practice of demonizing other people with different ideologies or perspectives has become almost commonplace in a country of 220 million Muslims that once enjoyed a worldwide reputation for tolerance.

Hamid, a cultural anthropologist and development specialist, says in her paper that intolerant acts have their roots in an atmosphere that is dominated by a “monolithic, conservative and exclusivist understanding of what it is like to be a Muslim.”

“Religion is generally conveyed on television and in popular films in a binary manner, with a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims,” she says.

“There is little or no nuance or room for reflection. This dichotomy encourages the performative aspects of being religious, and perpetuates ‘othering’ of those who are ‘different’ and therefore ‘wrong.’”

That, she says, has helped to determine what is, and what is not, acceptable in everyday discourse. “Drawing a line between ‘us and them’ is not only normalized but for some is seen to be a duty, a way of expressing personal commitment to piety and the empowerment of Muslims.”