Ulil Abshar-Abdalla was the top student in his Arabic language class at a madrasa in Indonesia when he was a teenager. A madrasa is a place where people learn about Islam, the religion of Muslims. Abshar-Abdalla’s madrasa was in his hometown of Pati, Central Java.
The teenager received a prize for his success in the class. He got six months of free education at the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic, or LIPIA. It is a university in Jakarta that Saudi Arabia built and supports. When the six-month period ended, Abshar-Abdalla was given six more months of free education.
When he completed the year of study, he was offered -- and accepted -- four years of free education at the university. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Islamic law, or shariah. In 1993, after five years at LIPIA, Abshar-Abdalla was offered a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia.
This time, he said no.
“Once you accept that, you’re on their payroll for life,” he told VOA.
It was not easy to reject the free study. Abshar-Abdalla said Saudi Arabia made a very appealing offer.
“I am from a poor family, and it was quite tempting. I think they managed to pull a few good minds from my generation that way.”
Saudi Arabia has been using education to quietly spread Salafism in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, since 1980. The two ways Saudi Arabia does this is through the LIPIA and scholarships for higher education in Saudi Arabia.
Salafism is a severe form of Islam. Its believers want Islamic laws -- as defined by the Koran -- to govern the world. The Koran is the Islamic holy book.
LIPIA teaches Wahhabi Madhab. A religious expert from the 1200s, Ibn Taimiyah, led this version of Salafism.
People who have studied at LIPIA and in Saudi Arabia hold powerful positions throughout Indonesia, including in a conservative political party and the top levels of government. Some have also become preachers and religious teachers. They work to spread Salafism throughout the country.
An agency linked to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Jakarta gives scholarships to students to study in Saudi Arabia. But Saudi diplomat Saad Namase would not tell VOA how many students are given free education.
He said “we don't really work with the Indonesian government. We just try to strengthen cultural ties between our two countries by, for example, holding Koranic recitation competitions.”
He said many countries, including the Netherlands and the United States, give scholarships to Indonesian students. He said the Saudi program is just one of many that help students pay for their studies.
Din Wahid is an expert on Indonesian Salafism at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta. He says the Saudi agency pays the wages of well-known Salafi preachers, and sends Arabic teachers to schools throughout Indonesia.
Several Saudi Arabian universities also give scholarships directly to Indonesian students.
Dadi Darmadi is a researcher who studies the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, called the Hajj. Darmadi says the Indonesian government is not likely to try to stop the Saudi efforts. He says it is concerned that Saudi officials might react by limiting the number of Indonesians who can travel to Mecca.
Darmadi says Saudi Arabia just gave permission for 10,000 extra Indonesian visitors for the Hajj this year.
Hidayat Nur Wahid is a member of Indonesia’s House of Representatives and a leader of the Prosperous Justice Party. He is one of the best-known national politicians to have studied in Saudi Arabia. He received scholarships for undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees in theology and the history of Islamic thought at the Islamic University of Medina.
In his words, “The majority of Islamic texts are in Arabic, which is why I wanted to study in Saudi Arabia. Plus, the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad animates Medina. I enjoyed my years there.”
Nur Wahid praised his studies in Medina.
“We just learned how to be good Muslims,” he said. “And it’s a misconception that everyone who studies in Saudi Arabia becomes a preacher or religious teacher. Many graduates become officials or politicians like me.”
Researcher Din Wahid said many Muslims think Saudi Arabia represents true Islam because it is the birthplace of Islam.
Abshar-Abdalla became a critic of the Salafi movement during his studies. He began to read other Islamic books, including ones written by Sufi and Shia Muslims. In 2001, he created the Liberal Islam Network.
Some Indonesian officials worry that Saudi-educated preachers are leading Indonesian Muslims to become more conservative in their beliefs. They are even more worried that Salafi teachings could incite terrorism or extremism.
Hidayat Nur Wahid says Saudi Arabia is helping many Indonesian students but that it is not clear what changes Salafism will bring to his country. He says all that is clear is that Salafism is “here and it’s growing.”
I’m Marsha James.
And I’m John Russell.
Correspondent Krithika Varagur reported this story from Jakarta. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
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Words in This Story
scholarship – n. an amount of money that is given by a school, an organization, etc., to a student to help pay for the student's education
payroll – n. a list of the people who work for a company and the amount of money that the company has agreed to pay them
tempt – v. to cause (someone) to do or want to do something even though it may be wrong, bad or unwise
managed – v. was able to
generation – n. a group of people born and living during the same time
preacher – n. a person who speaks publicly about religious subjects in a religious center or other public place
recite – v. to read (something) out loud or say (something) from memory usually for an audience
animate – v. to bring life to
misconception – n. a wrong or mistaken idea