Saudi Arabian ambassador to Indonesia, Osama bin Mohammed Abdullah Al Shoaibi with Indonesia's Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Mohamad Nasir (blue shirt) during the groundbreaking ceremony for Syiah Kuala University (Unsyiah) in Aceh. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education)
Saudi Arabia is expanding its influence on education in Indonesia by funding schools and universities, triggering concerns about growing radicalism in the Muslim-majority country.
The aid is part of Saudi Arabia's fresh push into the world's largest Muslim country, following the visit of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz to Indonesia in March.
During the visit, King Salman allocated US $1 billion for social aid, including for education, as part of a total $13 billion budget for funding business, education and religion in Indonesia.
Through the state-owned Saudi Fund for Development (SFD), which targets bilateral cooperation to assist development in developing countries, the funds are for new building projects including facilities at a number of universities.
One that has already started is Syiah Kuala University (Unsyiah) in Aceh province on the island of Sumatra where Shariah is practiced.
SFD has donated $34.9 million for the project.
On May 15, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Indonesia, Osama bin Mohammed Abdullah Al Shoaibi, along with Indonesia's Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Mohamad Nasir, held a groundbreaking ceremony at the campus.
Donations for campuses are part of the "7 in 1" project which, in collaboration with the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), Saudi Arabia funds renovations, as well as improving the curriculum and skills of academic staff.
Nasir said Unisyah was the first university to undergo these changes. "The six other universities involved in the project are Surabaya State University, Yogyakarta State University, Sam Ratulangi University, Gorontalo State University, Tanjungpura State University and Lambung Mangkurat University," Nasir said.
Ambassador Al Shoaibi said Saudi Arabia has a great interest in improving science and technology in Indonesia.
Fear of Wahhabism
However, with this increasing financial support, concerns over the development of Wahhabism go hand in hand.
The majority of Saudis practice a puritanical, strict and dogmatic brand of Islam known as Salafism and the even stricter Wahhabism — the strain practiced by the ruling al-Saud family.
The effort to encourage the practice of Wahhabism in Indonesia, according to many observers, is not a new story.
Since 1980, when investment into Indonesian culture and religion began in earnest, Saudi Arabia has devoted millions of dollars to exporting its forms of Islam.
The flow of funds came into the pesantren, or Islamic boarding schools, and to build the mosques, according to Din Wahid, a lecturer at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University.
According to Din Wahid, the precise number of Salafi pesantren is unavailable, it is estimated that there are about 50.
Salafi pesantrens not only teach their students about Salafism, but also accustom them to practice the Salafi manhaj (path) in their daily life.
Other efforts to spread influence was the building of several Arabic language institutes and the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic — known locally by the acronym LIPIA — a Jakarta-based university founded by the Saudi government as well as scholarships for Indonesian students to study at higher education institutes in Saudi Arabia every year, some of whom now have increasingly powerful networks.
Alumni of these programs include Habib Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front, a hard-line organization associated with religion-related violence.
Shihab attended both LIPIA and King Saud University in Riyadh, while Jafar Umar Thalib, who founded the militant Salafi group, Laskar Jihad, also graduated from LIPIA.
Right-wing Islamist leaders like Hidayat Nur Wahid, a member of parliament who obtained three degrees from the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, is prominent in Indonesian mainstream politics.
Some have also become preachers and religious teachers, spreading Salafism and Wahhabism across the archipelago.
With its great financial support, LIPIA not only provides free lectures, but also other things such as uniforms, books, dormitories and 'pocket money.'
"New students get 250,000 rupiah ($19) per month while senior students get 775,000 rupiah ($58)," Yuda a LIPIA student said.
Between 1982 and 2013, LIPIA produced 11,535 graduates.
The infiltration of Wahhabism into schools was revealed by several students, who spoke to ucanews.com.
As a matter of faith, Yuda said, other versions of Islam like Shia and Ahmadiyya cannot be tolerated and their adherents are persecuted in Indonesia.
He considers these groups as heretical. "I personally consider Shia as beasts," Yuda added.
The students are involved in da'wah programs in various regions in Indonesia.
"We give lectures every week in mosques," another student, Irfan said.
"We are trying to teach real Islam to society so people do not become snared by a group that is under the 'guise' of Islam."
Muslims from moderate groups like Nahdatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization are concerned about Wahhabism's influence.
Zuhairi Misrawi, a Middle East political researcher from Nahdatul Ulama, said importing Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia through schools is, in essence, contrary to centuries-old traditions in Indonesia.
"This is a serious matter because Wahhabism does not recognize diversity in Islam and its followers use this to justify violence," he said.
"A practicing Wahhabi actually has the right to oppose a notion he does not approve of, but what we cannot accept is violence," Zuhairi added.
Azumardi Azra of Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University said he is not worried that much about establishing educational institutions funded by Saudi Arabia.
He said the influence of moderate Islamic organizations such as Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah in Indonesian schools is too strong.
"Though there are educational institutions funded by Saudi Arabia, I think their influence is not significant," Azra said.
"How could any radical group be able to change Nahdatul Ulama or Muhammadiyah? That is impossible," he added.
Wahhabism is not attractive and is rejected by the majority of Indonesian Muslims either openly or silently, he said.
Nevertheless, Nahdatul Ulama chairman, Said Aqil Siraj, said Wahhabism is dangerous because its teachings can encourage people to become terrorists.
"Wahhabists are not terrorists, but their understanding of Islam can lead them down that road," he said.
He said many terrorists in Indonesia are alumni of pesantrens that promote Wahhabism.
"Don't get me wrong, I do not hate Saudi Arabia, but I hate Wahhabism," he said.