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How radical Islam gained a foothold in Indonesia

In recent decades, a more radical Islam has been on the rise in Indonesia, but the government now promotes a moderate form of Islam. In his inaugural lecture, Professor Nico Kaptein will analyse the dynamics of Islam and the influence of the Middle East in this the largest Muslim country in the world. Inaugural lecture on 20 September.

For decades, Mecca was the most important Islamic compass for Indonesia. Indonesian religious leaders generally followed their training in Mecca and espoused Arabic Islam on their return home. From the beginning of the 20th century, Cairo, where a more modern form had taken hold, also became an important centre for the study of Islam.

Islam Nusantara

After its independence in 1945, Indonesia’s focus abroad, on the Middle East in particular, dwindled, says Kaptein. Moderate Islam scholars such as Abdurrahman Wahid, president between 1999 and 2001, emphasised the uniqueness of Islam in Indonesia. They promoted a tolerant interpretation that was recently termed Islam Nusantara (Nusantara is the geographical term for the Indonesian archipelago).  

With over 222m Muslims, Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population in the world. Photo Nurudin Jauhari
With over 222m Muslims, Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population in the world. Photo Nurudin Jauhari


The moderate Muslims turned against the ultra-puritan Saudi form of Islam, Wahabism Salafism, which had gained a foothold in Indonesia when the Saudi authorities opened the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies in Jakarta in 1981. The Salafist Islam taught at this study centre prescribes strict rules and vehemently rejects dissent.

Radical Islam wins ground after repression

The regime of President Suharto (1967–1998) repressed the followers of this more radical Islam. Kaptein can see a striking paradox here. After the fall of Suharto, society became more democratic and open. ‘But this also meant more room for Salafism.’ In this new religious climate, groups of Indonesian Muslims converted to a more radical and intolerant form of Islam. Since then, Indonesia has been shaken from time to time by terrorist attacks and other expressions of radicalism. 

Kaptein (right) with Indonesian alumni, anthropologist Bart Barendregt and Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker. Kaptein’s particular field of study is Indonesian Islam from round 1900 and earlier, but he also wants to look at current affairs in his inaugural lecture.

Islam Nusantara

Kaptein can see a countermovement. The government of current president Joko Widodo is deploying the police and army and at the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a desperate need for some ideological counterbalance. That is why Widodo and the Ministry of Religious Affairs support Islam Nusantara, as promoted by the largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama. Kaptein: ‘I obviously don’t expect radicals to convert to Islam Nusantara en masse, but I do expect this soft-power instrument to limit the further growth in the numbers of young radicals.’

Role of education and study

In addition, Kaptein emphasises the importance of education and study of Islam in Indonesia. He has already supervised dozens of Indonesian PhD candidates. Many now work at Indonesian universities and in public administration. ‘The academic study of Islam can keep radicalism at bay.’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photo above article: Gunawan Kartapranata

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