Over the past 20 years, Indonesia — the world’s fourth most-populous country and the largest Muslim-majority nation — has evolved into a democracy based on tolerance and a moderate interpretation of Islam, and has emerged as one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. This essay is part of a series on “Indonesia and the Middle East: Exploring Connections,” which examines the nature, scope, and implications of Indonesia's ties with the MENA region. See more ...

In April 2017, Indonesian president Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo acknowledged that he was “disappointed” by the paltry $6.71 billion in foreign investment pledged by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on his visit the previous month.[1] Jokowi’s disappointment followed news that Saudi investment in China would be nearly ten times the amount promised to Indonesia. It also trailed an announcement that Malaysia’s oil and gas giant Petronas sold $7 billion worth of shares to Gulf oil giant Saudi Aramco.

The Kingdom’s investments in China and Malaysia further advance two of Indonesia’s regional economic competitors who already enjoy more developed infrastructure. Jokowi’s disappointment is likely informed by more than simply being the recipient of the smallest slice of the Saudis’ investment pie; his presidential campaign pledged to revitalize Indonesia’s long-flagging infrastructure, and three years into his five-year term, he has little to show for it.

Despite Jokowi’s disappointment, Indonesia will continue to outpace its Asian neighbors in receipt of Saudi funding for religious universities and scholarships that allow Indonesian students to attend Islamic institutions in the Kingdom. The Saudi strategy of cultural investment in Indonesia — primarily engineered through building Islamic schools, supplying teachers and textbooks, and financing scholarship opportunities — has facilitated a channel of Saudi influence largely impermeable to Indonesia’s political changes over the last 40 years. Saudi-supported Islamic education not only survived but thrived under the oppression of Suharto’s New Order regime from 1966 to 1998. Today, under Indonesia’s often anti-liberal democratic rule, the country’s Saudi-educated Muslim elite have capitalized on opportunities to use increased political freedom to promote religious protectionism and hardline Islamic orthodoxy.


National Identity under Suharto

In 1965, a cabal of left-wing army officers orchestrated a failed coup in Jakarta, assassinating six anti-communist generals whom they believed were preparing to oust then-president Sukarno. In the weeks that followed, General Suharto, who had somewhat suspiciously escaped the assassinations, stepped in to neutralize the plotters, take control of the army, and eventually assume the presidency himself. The attempted coup preceded the 1965-66 Communist purge, during which the army imprisoned and executed communists, leftists, political dissidents, and other supposed threats to the Indonesian state. The final victim tally remains widely debated, with estimates of the dead and disappeared ranging from 100,000 to over one million.[2]

Amid the chaos that followed the purge, newly minted President Suharto sought to entrench his political power by unifying a country that is defined as much by its linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity as it is by unmanageable geographic sprawl. The government distributed thousands of television sets and invested in satellite infrastructure to broadcast state-sponsored propaganda across the archipelago. Public schools began each day with a mandatory anthem and flag-raising ceremony.[3] Pancasila, a doctrine of civic ideals, was mandated as the ideological foundation of all formal Indonesian institutions in an effort to express a singular Indonesian personality.[4]

The assertion of a strong national identity complemented efforts to erode the two institutions that posed the greatest threat to Suharto’s New Order regime: political Islam and university-based political dissent. In 1971, five years after Suharto’s rise to power, parties of political Islam mounted a strong electoral showing in the first national legislative elections under the New Order. In response, the President forced the four most prominent Islamic political parties to merge, collapsing their priorities and diluting their individual appeal. Forty-six years later, and two decades after Suharto’s fall, this consolidation is arguably responsible for the ineffectual legacy of political Islam in the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy.

The New Order also suppressed political expression by universities and student groups. The communist purge had largely eliminated leftist students and scholars from Indonesian universities in the years immediately following Suharto’s assumption of the presidency. In the early 1970s, however, student groups emerged as the platform of popular opposition to rampant corruption in the New Order regime. The government responded by disbanding the Suharto-appointed commission that had reported the power abuses and banning further student protests. Student demonstrations continued in the following years, however, including the Taman Mini protests in 1971, the Malari riots in 1974, and a series of demonstrations in response to a ban on long hair, a visit by a Dutch minister, and an offensive marriage law.

The New Order issued its strongest crackdown on student expression in early 1978, after the Bandung Institute of Technology’s Student Council published The White Book of the Student Struggle, a fiercely anti-Suharto paper that accused the regime of power abuses and further fueled student-led uprisings across the country. Six students were killed in the military’s seizure of Gadjah Madah University in February and 800 more were arrested across Indonesia during demonstrations in March of that year. Eventually the repression of student activism was codified in the Normalasisi Kehidupan Kampus/Baden Kordinasisi Kamahasiswaan (The Normalization of Campus Life/The Body to Coordinate Students), which banned student political activity and crippled freedom of expression on university campuses.[5] The new regulation militarized Indonesian campuses by granting the state security apparatus authority to dictate student affairs. Student movements were forced underground and student-run publications gutted of political content.

The Saudi Education Strategy

As Suharto sought to contain threats to his regime, Saudi Arabia found itself on the winning end of the 1973 oil crisis. Newly replete with cash, the Kingdom used its oil wealth to entrench its influence in Southeast Asia through the funding of religious schools, universities, and scholarships. In Indonesia, where Islam had been crippled in the political arena and politics suppressed in the education sector, these investments shored up soft power and influence that would prove largely invulnerable to the political and social changes to come.

Saudi Arabia had experience employing educational influence to achieve political aims. Since the Kingdom’s founding in 1932, Saudi rulers had battled accusations of hypocrisy and religious illegitimacy. While the strict Wahhabi Islam popular in the country rejected modernity and any vestige of the West, Saudi royalty boasted close ties to Western allies. Simmering tensions turned violent in 1979, when a group of armed Islamic radicals stormed the Grand Mosque of Mecca, aggrieved by what they considered the weak religious credentials of the royal family and the complacency of Wahhabi scholars.[6]

In an effort to pacify criticism and strengthen the credibility of the ruling dynasty, Saudi Arabia fortified the religious component of state school curricula and invested in Islamic schools and universities, including the Islamic University of Umm al-Qura established by royal decree in 1981. Classrooms became an avenue not only to teach Wahhabism, but also to promote the religious exceptionalism of the Kingdom itself, which is described as a divinely selected world center of Islamic faith.[7] Cloaking an exoneration of the royal family in the promotion of Islam served as an unimpugnable channel of influence for a regime that had failed to win favor with religious hardliners.

Indonesia’s Imposition of Pancasila

Tension between a deeply religious citizenry and a ruling party perceived as offensively secular would continue throughout the early years of Suharto’s reign. In 1983, to the dismay of many Muslim leaders, Suharto forcibly integrated Pancasila into the foundational code of all Indonesian institutions. Suharto believed that the five political and social maxims enshrined in Pancasila would further establish Indonesia’s national unity. He required all Indonesian organizations and political parties to abide by the five principles and supported curriculum revisions that required two hours of training per week in Pancasila from elementary school onwards.[8]

The imposition of Pancasila on political and religious organizations angered many Muslim leaders, who saw the move as a further “de-Islamizing” of political parties. Their opposition escalated into a violent clash between police and Islamic leaders in Tanjung Priok in 1984, with conflicting reports estimating that either 18 or “hundreds” of people were killed.[9] Intermittent violence followed the Tanjung Priok riots, but within the next two years, the New Order commanded acquiescence from all major organizations and parties, including Nahdlatul Ulama in 1984 and Muhammadiyah in 1985.

Inroads of Salafism in Indonesian Education

With the weakening of political Islam and the banning of political activity on campus, student groups became a refuge for Islam just as Islam became a unifying theme around which students could still mobilize. Against the coalescence of Islam, dissent, and student movements, Saudi Arabian oil money bolstered the Islamic education industry in Indonesia and spurred the adoption of Salafism, a puritanical doctrine similar to Wahhabism. Many in the Salafi movement wholly rejected participation in politics as a distraction from religious study and an improper deification of political leaders. The Saudi-funded rise of Salafism, however, and the New Order’s demonization of it, stoked widespread anti-Suharto sentiment among Muslims. Factions of the student-led resistance movement increasingly capitalized on puritanical Islam as another shared cause over which to disparage the ruling dynasty. Suharto’s later attempts to pacify religious leadership, through funding for mosques and even his own pilgrimage to Mecca, failed to quell the long-simmering resentments of Indonesians who began to conflate the increasingly blatant corruption of the Suharto family with the New Order’s legacy of political and religious oppression.

To solidify their influence, the Saudis partnered with former Prime Minister Mohammad Nastir, whose popular Islamic political party Masyumi was banned by Sukarno in 1960. Together they established Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Islam dan Bahasa Arab (LIPIA), the Jakarta-based branch of Riyadh’s Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University.[10] LIPIA cemented Saudi access to elite Indonesian students, who were groomed for political and religious leadership. Students admitted to the College attend free of charge and receive stipends to fund their living expenses. Classes are taught by a majority Saudi faculty, and Arabic is the only language used on campus. Top students are invited to continue their studies in Riyadh; students who attend Indonesian institutions for graduate school become ambassadors of Salafism at home.[11] Influential LIPIA alumni include Habib Rizieq, founder of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front, who graduated from both LIPIA and King Saud University, and Jafar Umar, who studied first at LIPIA and then, on a Saudi scholarship, at Maududi Institute in Lahore Pakistan before founding the now-defunct Islamist militia Laskar Jihad. The first generation to graduate from LIPIA and complete studies in Saudi Arabia “marked the birth of a new generation of Muslim reformists in Indonesia,” a group whose influence on Indonesian politics would ultimately outlive the Suharto reign.[12] In additional to LIPIA, Saudi Arabia has supplied hundreds of pesantren (boarding schools) with books and teachers and provided scholarships for hundreds of Indonesian students to study in the Kingdom.

The Saudi influence in Indonesian education is part of a strategy that weathered both the political tumult of the New Order’s rise and fall and the last 20 years of consistently corrupt but largely peaceful democracy. Eventually, student protests would ignite the movements that drove Suharto from power in 1998. While many protestors were motivated by a desire for a transparent and accountable government, many were also angered by religious oppression and vindicated by the support of a country seen to be the birthplace of Islam.

The end of the New Order has arguably done more for the influence of Islam in politics than it has the promotion of accountability or transparency. In the wake of Suharto’s 1998 fall from power, the national identity that the New Order fought to impose across Indonesia began to fracture. To quell province-level calls for independence, Indonesia implemented a decentralized democracy that devolved political power to districts at the expense of national cohesion. This elevated hardline Muslim groups who championed religiously-influenced governance that would have been impossible under Suharto. So-called anti-pornography laws that many saw as expressions of Islamic orthodoxy allowed for the policing of women’s clothing. District leaders enacted bylaws based on sharia law, including closing restaurants during Ramadan,[13] criminalizing homosexuality,[14] and denying women government services if they do not wear headscarves.[15]

As Indonesia’s democracy accommodates the political agendas of hardline Muslim groups, Saudi-funded Islamic education continues to generate demand. Indonesian donors and alumni are increasingly positioned to provide domestic funding to support these institutions — and their Saudi educators — going forward. Saudi Arabia’s leaders have capitalized on an investment strategy in Indonesia that has won them access that is so far impermeable to changes in political rule. In the process, they have created an opportunity for their own political influence by grooming Indonesia’s Muslim elite to be more receptive to Islamic political overtures and advances in hardline causes. While this may threaten pluralism and liberalism in Indonesia, it is reflective of growing evidence that the citizen consensus sees democracy as a platform for religious protectionism and state-sanctioned Islamic governance.


Conservative Islam thrived under Suharto’s dictatorship as an expression of resistance, then went on to flourish under democracy as an assertion of citizen rule. Institutions of Islamic education have exercised a unique hold on cultural influence that political upheaval has done little to upend. Given the sustainability of access that Saudi Arabia’s investments in cultural diplomacy have won the Kingdom, there is little incentive to shift to funding physical infrastructure. Islam exerts a more durable claim to Indonesia’s identity than does its governance structure; and Islamic elites can deliver greater access and influence for Saudi Arabia than can Indonesian politicians. As long as Indonesian citizens prioritize the establishment of religious principles in governance over national infrastructure and development, Saudi Arabia will continue to focus on investments most likely to secure and perpetuate their long-term influence.

[1] “‘Disappointed’: Jokowi upset that Saudi invests in China more than Indonesia,” Asian Correspondent, April 15, 2017, accessed February 1, 2018, https://asiancorrespondent.com/2017/04/disappointed-jokowi-upset-saudi-….

[2] Robert Pringle, Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010) 83.

[3] Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia, etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016) 34–38.

[4] Lena Tan, “East Timor and Indonesia Identity,” in Daniel Rothbart and Karina V. Korostelina (eds.), Identity, Morality, and Threat: Studies in Violent (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) 184.

[5] Vincent Boudreau, Resisting Dictatorship: Repression and Protest in Southeast Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 111 – 117.

[6] Amanda Kovacs, “Saudi Arabia Exporting Salafi Education and Radicalizing Indonesia’s Muslims,” GIGA Focus, 7 (2014): 3.

[7] Kovacs, “Saudi Arabia Exporting Salafi Education,” 3.

[8] Shigeo Nishimura, “The Development of Pancasila Moral Education,” Southeast Asian Studies, 33, 3 (December, 1995): 311-312.

[9] Douglas E. Ramage, Politics in Indonesia: Democracy, Islam, and the Ideology of Tolerance (London: Routledge, 1995) 37.

[10] Pringle, Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010) 98.

[11] Kovacs, “Saudi Arabia Exporting Salafi Education,” 6.

[12] Noorhaidi Hasan, “The Salafi Madrasas of Indonesia” in Farish A. Noor, Yoginder Sikand, and Martin van Bruinessen (eds.), The Madrasa in Asia: Political Activism and Transnational Linkages (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008) 252.

[13] Joe Cochrane, “Raid on Indonesian Food Stall Prompts Fears of Fundamentalism,” New York Times, July 9, 2016, accessed February 1, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/world/asia/indonesia-ramadan-raid-is….

[14] Phelim Kine, “Dispatches: Indonesia’s Blind Eye to Abusive Sharia Bylaws,” Human Rights Watch, June 21, 2016, accessed February 1, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/06/21/dispatches-indonesias-blind-eye-abu….

[15] Robin Bush, “Regional Sharia Regulations in Indonesia: Anomaly or Symptom?” in Greg Fealy and Sally White (eds.), Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008) 174-191.



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