Promoting Tolerance Through Early Islamic Education in Indonesia

Promoting Tolerance Through Early Islamic Education in Indonesia

by Carter Banker

Indonesia is viewed as a moderate Muslim country by the West, and its political leadership has been lauded for its success in handling Islamic extremism.  Compared to Muslim populations in France, Australia, or Belgium, proportionally fewer Indonesian citizens have joined The Islamic State (ISIS). Indonesia’s government and security forces have also been largely successful in wiping out Jemaah Islamiya, the terrorist organization responsible for the murder of 202 people and the wounding of 209 people in Bali in 2002.

Despite a recent decline in high-profile terrorist attacks, the Setara Institute, which tracks religious violence in Indonesia, reported 177 instances of religiously motivated violence in 2014 and 236 in 2015. An increase in violence in a country credited for its stability is deeply troubling. While the response of the government and national-level organizations to the rise of extremist rhetoric and violence has been relatively well-documented, less information is available about local initiatives to counter violent religious extremism.

Local Approach

I arrived in Yogyakarta, known as The City of Tolerance, in June 2016 to ascertain how local moderate Muslim organizations, largely affiliated with either Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) or Muhammadiyah, the two largest Muslim organizations in the country, were countering religious extremism. What I found was that the groups I spoke with were not explicitly implementing programs to counter extremism so much as they were promoting early Islamic education, which they believed instilled the values of tolerance and an appreciation for pluralism. These groups were using a positive, proactive approach as opposed to the negative, reactive approach that is often used at the government level and by the international community.

Islamic Education

Among the people I spoke with, it is widely believed that attending a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, gives Indonesian youth a deep understanding of Islam and the Qur’an from an early age and prevents them from joining intolerant groups in university and later in life. An early religious education teaches students not only to read the Qur’an in Arabic, but also to understand its context. In Indonesia, where Islam is influenced by Buddhist, Hindu, and Animist traditions, the Qur’an is often interpreted through a lens of pluralism and tolerance of different beliefs.

Whereas the perception in the West is often that Islamic schools are “hotbeds” for radicalization, my interviewees told me that much of the radicalism in Indonesia comes out of secular universities, an observation that is backed up by scholars. Students who attend secular, government-run universities can be more likely to lack a strong background in Islam, as many of them find religion later in life and did not attend religious schools in their youth. This can leave them vulnerable to the teachings of radical preachers.

How Can Islamic Education Prevent Radicalization?

In July, I visited Pesantren Aswaja Nusantara, located on the outskirts of Yogyakarta. The school's library was filled with books on a variety of subjects, including sex education and other religions. Ayu, whose husband directs the program, has a master’s degree in religious studies from Florida International University, told me pluralism and tolerance are embedded within Islamic teaching and that she and her husband Musdafied try to lead by example. Pesantren Aswaja Nusantara has an annual program inviting seminary students to stay in the pesantren to learn about Islam and to discuss Christianity. They also invite other speakers throughout the year. On my first visit to the pesantren, I encountered a professor from Grinnell College in the United States who was presenting her research on the difference in civic skill development opportunities in mosques compared with churches in Yogyakarta. On my second visit, I noticed that a whiteboard in one of the classrooms contained a song about peace, with lyrics in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. Ayu and her husband remain true to their mission to promote tolerance and pluralism through religious education.

Early religious education with a focus on pluralism and tolerance is promoted outside of schools as well. Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Sosial (LKiS), or in English the Institute for Islamic and Social Studies, a foundation that is culturally associated with Nahdlatul Ulama, works with children and religious teachers to expose them to the religious and cultural practices of others, and to teach them about the compatibility of Islam and human rights. This program was started after 9/11 when LKiS realized that negative stereotypes about Islam had implications for pesantren in Indonesia, as the schools were seen by foreign media as sources of terror.

Members of Muhammadiyah have generally been less involved in the promotion of pluralism than members of NU because they believe pluralism is associated with Christianity and the legacy of colonialism, but there have been some exceptions. Subkhi Ridho, a university lecturer at Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, founded a program in 2006 to work with religious teachers to promote tolerance among youth. Like LKiS, the program takes religious teachers to different places of worship to learn about other faiths. The organization was officially shut down by Muhammadiyah leadership, but has continued to operate independently nonetheless.

Thus, I found that many NU and some Muhammadiyah-affiliated groups are countering the spread of religious extremism by encouraging early moderate Islamic education with an emphasis on tolerance and pluralism. These groups also hope to help change the image of Islamic schools in the eyes of the Western world.

Broader Implications

I had recently completed my research on the spread of tolerance through Islamic education, when the AP released a story in August about leaked documents obtained from ISIS detailing the lack of knowledge about Islam possessed by its recruits. In a document asking the recruits to rank their knowledge of Islam from 1 to 3, with 3 being very knowledgeable, the recruits self-reported themselves to be extremely ignorant of the religion for which they desired to fight. The article also includes interviews with defected fighters, two of whom ordered the book “Islam for Dummies” on Amazon. Very few Muslims would be surprised by these findings, yet to the media and the general public outside of the Islamic world, this story was breaking news.

The perception that Islam is inherently dangerous is pervasive in the political and educational spheres. The truth is that the rise of groups like ISIS and the influx of Saudi-funded Salafi schools all over the world have made moderate, early Islamic education more important than ever. The Australian government and USAID have both provided funding to pesantren, but such funding risks alienating schools that resent what they see to be foreign government influence on their curriculums.

I propose a two-fold solution: First, foreign governments that wish to support Indonesian pesantren should transfer government aid to international NGOs and cease any efforts to influence the curriculum of schools. For example, USAID attempted to introduce American History books that had been translated into Indonesian into the pesantren they were funding. Such efforts are seen as imperialistic and are counterproductive. Second, interested parties, including the Indonesian government, foreign governments, international NGOs, the media, and religious organizations across the spectrum should make an effort to counter the perception abroad that all Islamic schools are hotbeds of extremism. Such views demonstrate the enormous gap of understanding between the Islamic and non-Islamic world. The sooner we bridge that gap, the better we will be able to work together to combat the scourge of violent extremism in all parts of the world.


Image of children at pesantren school Aswaja Nusantra in Yogyakarta, courtesy of Carter Banker 


About the Author

Carter Banker is a first year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) candidate currently studying International Security and Southwest Asia & Islamic Civilization. She is a former intern at the Council on Foreign Relations and currently a research assistant to Farah Pandith, the first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the State Department under Secretary Clinton.

Exposing the Underbelly of Global Supply Chains

Exposing the Underbelly of Global Supply Chains

An Interview with Ambassador Björn Lyrvall

An Interview with Ambassador Björn Lyrvall