King Salman’s visit to Indonesia had both religious and political motives that could affect the world at large
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud arrived in Indonesia on the 1st of March for a state visit. The royal was joined by an enormous convoy of 800 delegates, 620 staff and over 450 tonnes of luggage. Met from his plane by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit the world’s largest Muslim-majority country since 1970. There had been hopes that the visit would lead to economic dealings between the two nations. Political officials in Jakarta appeared to hold aspirations of a $25 billion investment in resources from the Arabian kingdom, in addition to a strengthening of business relations in real terms. With the kingdom eventually agreeing to only one deal, a comparatively meagre $1bn, this aim has clearly failed to materialise.
While Saudi Arabia may not have shown desire to influence the Indonesian economy, their real desire lies with influence of Indonesian culture and religion. In the past three decades, a liberal and tolerant Indonesia has been on the receiving end of Saudi Arabia’s strict and literalist version of Islam: Salafism. This is a cause to which millions of Arabian dollars have been devoted, for instance to build hundreds of mosques and Islamic teaching centres across the Southeast Asian archipelago nation. Salafi adherents and other fundamentalists make up only 3 per cent of Islam’s 1.7 billion followers worldwide, yet through Saudi Arabia, their influence on Islam as a whole is large.
Over time, there has been a gradual, Arabian shifting of Indonesia towards conservatism and intolerance. The heart of the relatively new movement of Indonesian Salafism is the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA): a Jakarta university entirely funded by Saudi Arabia. The king’s visit has excited the members of the campus, who hope the two countries can come together, not only in terms of international politics but also religious doctrine. The university enforces strict rules: music is considered prohibited due to being considered ‘bid’ah’ (unnecessary innovation), men and women are kept apart as much as possible, and theology, a mandatory subject, is taught only by committed Wahhabists (followers of an even stricter form of Salafism).
The clearest danger to this spreading of Salafism and Wahhabism is that it fuels global extremism and contributes to terrorism. It draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. This branch of thought provides an ideological basis for violent jihadists: the Saudi version of Islam lures particularly vulnerable followers towards Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, with its denigration and dehumanisation of others exposed as the word of God. Saudi imams, coming from the heart of the Muslim world, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the land of Mecca, carry automatic credibility as religious teachers, and so their instructions are met with obedience.
Textbooks in Saudi Arabia’s schools and universities instill this brand of Islam, and in teaching these views calibrate the religious bases of the young and susceptible, making the ISIS religious narrative easier to swallow. These textbooks are also shipped out to Arabian universities all over the world, including Indonesia: without this Saudi influence, the threat of terrorism around the globe could be a totally different situation. Saudi Arabia is itself a prime exhibit of the terrorist results of such a religion’s enforcement, the Arabian Peninsula nation producing not only Osama bin Laden but also 15 of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 attacks, and, more recently, around 2,500 Daesh fighters.
There is already a widely held consensus that Saudi Arabia has disrupted local Islamic traditions in a multitude of countries. The Arabian government and royal family have used their almost unlimited wealth shrewdly to this aim: the estimation of religious outreach funding totals 10 billion dollars. Not only this, but guest workers allowed into the country, many from South Asia, also bring away the Saudi methods on returning home years later. The preaching of Wahhabism has brought on a religion that is harshly judgemental, increasing public support in various countries for punishments of stoning and execution for non-violent crimes.
If these results of cooperation with Saudi Arabia, terrorism and disruption of culture, are well documented, the question can surely be raised as to why Indonesia does not appear to be resisting. A likely answer can be found in the all-important hajj quota: the number of citizens per country who can make the pilgrimage to Mecca in any given year. Every Indonesian political leader, including President Widodo and Speaker of the House Zulkifli Hasan, has been quoted on citing the hajj quota as one of the most important focuses of King Salman’s visit to the country. Indonesia has the largest allowance of pilgrimages per year in the world, and are desperate to preserve this, if not build on it.
With this visit, King Salman is seeking to further and further increase cultural and religious change in Indonesia towards this evangelical, extreme Islam. While Indonesia is Saudi Arabia’s largest project, they are by no means alone: Saudi are also undertaking similar foreign infrastructural impositions in Egypt, Bosnia and Pakistan. Although one policy objective of the visit is a pact to combat terrorism, what is needed from the king is an unequivocal, bold and definitive statement denouncing radicalism and violence, to speak for the vast majority of Salafists who are staunchly and ideologically opposed to extremism. Perhaps then his visit will not be seen as a vote of confidence to radical Indonesian Islamic movements, but as a movement to combine with Indonesia to eliminate terror.