JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The use of a small network of Indonesian boarding schools as a recruiting avenue for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist group has sent alarm bells ringing in the West.
Some officials worry that Saudi Arabian money is being used to spread the intolerant Wahhabi Islam adhered to by members of Al Qaeda and the affiliated JI through the country's schools and mosques, producing a steady creep of radical ideas in a country famed for its religious tolerance.
Of particular concern is what, precisely, is being taught in the country's 10,000-plus Islamic boarding schools, called pesantren. Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged spiritual leader of JI who was sentenced to four years in jail earlier this month, is still the head of the Al-Mukmin pesantren in Central Java.
Three brothers on trial for the Bali nightclub attacks that killed 202 people, helped run Pesantren Al-Islam in East Java, and Imam Samudra, sentenced to death this past week for being the field-commander of the Bali attack, told interrogators that he used Koran study groups at government-run Islamic high-schools in western Java to recruit operatives.
The flurry of information about these men's activities and their links to Al Qaeda may be creating the impression that radical, foreign ideas are taking hold in the pesantren of the world's most populous Muslim nation.
But while recent research into Indonesia's Islamic boarding schools is yielding some alarming findings, most scholars here are convinced that the spread of radical rhetoric has far less to do with Saudi-trained religious teachers than it does with fury at America's foreign policy and domestic disappointment with the performance of secular President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
"This is still a minority group of people, but radical sentiments, particularly among students, have been strengthened by the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan,'' says Lies Marcoes, who works with Islamic organizations in Indonesia for the Asia Foundation in Jakarta.
She says the invasions have fueled the perception that America is an enemy of Islam. That view leads some, in turn, to see themselves as part of a global Muslim community struggling with an American enemy and gives them a desire to symbolically join that community by becoming more pious and advocating that Indonesia become an Islamic state.
Ali Achmad, a portly 26-year-old teacher wearing Arab-style dress at Pesantren Al Kamal in Jakarta, says domestic and international political events have had a profound impact on the way he has seen the world in the past few years. In particular, he says: "America has revealed that it hates Islam and it's trying to take control of Indonesia through making stuff up about terrorism."
In Indonesia's last general election, he voted for the party of the resolutely secular Megawati, because he says he expected she'd help clean up the notoriously corrupt government and do something to help the legions of Indonesian poor.
"This government is a total failure; they haven't embraced reform or protected our rights. There's gambling and prostitution everywhere. I'm so disappointed." He says at the next election he intends to vote for the tiny Justice Party, which favors strict Islamic law for Indonesia over the country's secular arrangements. "Islamic law would wipe out corruption. It seems like the only solution to our problems."
"The best avenue for radicals to reach out to people here is through their critique of government corruption,'' says Marcoes. "Many people see the failure of the government to make cleaner government, stop vice, and help the poor, and so some will turn to sharia as the answer."
A recent survey of 30 pesantren in East Java by the Indonesian Center for the Study of Democracy and Human Rights found that the majority of students at pesantren associated with Muhammadiyah, one of the country's two largest Muslim organizations, view America as an enemy, believe the Bali attack was organized by the US to "damage the image of Islam,'' and say they are eager to join a jihad.
"Ten years ago we didn't have this rhetoric of jihad, the focus on US behavior in the world. This is largely a consequence of the post-Sept. 11 environment,'' says a longtime researcher of Indonesian Islam. "You can say this youthful radicalism is just rhetoric - they won't ever actually go on a jihad - but it's still alarming."
This scholar, who asked that his name not be used, says free distribution of texts sponsored by Saudi charities has contributed to the spread of some radical ideas in Indonesia, but far more important are internet news coverage and chat-rooms on the US war on terror.
"America's arrogance is so clear, that's why I don't like America,'' says Nuzuliza, a 20-year-old student at Assadiqiah pesantren in Jakarta. "I really think they're against Muslims - the invasion of Iraq doesn't make any sense otherwise."
Nuzuliza, whose face is framed by the blue scarf she uses to cover her hair, says she was particularly upset by the recent conviction of Bashir. "He's an old man, a good man, and he's innocent. I think our government bowed to American pressure."
Some Indonesian politicians are also giving voice to anger over US policies. Earlier this month, Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz called the US "the terrorist king" for its war in Iraq. A week ago, Hasyim Muzadi, the chairman of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, the famously tolerant Nahdlatul Ulama, also lashed out at America. He said that the JI doesn't exist and "radicalism may happen, but it is only a reaction to injustice that the US itself has perpetrated, for example, in the case of Palestine."
His comments were considered so alarming that both US Ambassador Ralph Boyce and Australian Ambassador David Ritchie rushed to meet with him this past week.
To be sure, scholars say they doubt a sea change is taking place within Indonesian Islam. Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group estimates that perhaps as many as five out of Indonesia's 10,000 pesantren are associated with Jemaah Islamiyah.
Though there are undoubtedly more schools preaching radical ideas, there are still thousands of Indonesian pesantren that adhere to their tolerant traditions. "There is a small trend of radical thought in Indonesian Islam,'' says Marcoes of the Asia Foundation. "But Indonesian Islam is a spectrum, and the biggest part of that spectrum remains moderate."