Tuesday, September 27, 2005


On one of my walks beside Bogor’s Ciliwung River, I chanced upon an Islamic boarding school, a pesantren, housed in an old tenement-like building, perched on one side of a deep and narrow gorge. Hordes of rollicking boys, some wearing peci caps and chirpy smiles, milled around the entrance or entertained themselves in the open spaces of the village beyond. I was not sure that all of these young people were students of the pesantren. Down a narrow lane, two boys were enjoying an energetic bout of wrestling; on a patch of dusty ground a group of three were kicking around a tennis ball; under the shade of trees some older boys were smoking clove cigarettes and some younger ones were holding hands.

"Hello mister," said a young boy wearing a green, checked sarong. "Where are you from?"

"The astral plane," I said.

"Qantas?" he asked.

"This is a school," said a plump old man with a funny hat and a benign expression "Come and have a look." He spoke in English.

I was delighted by the invitation; I had always wondered what went on in these Islamic boarding schools; would they be full of violent militants dreaming of jihad in Afghanistan? We entered a small courtyard, which was cool and shaded, and then toured various dimly lit corridors and rooms. In one sparsely furnished classroom a teacher was reciting something in Arabic. In a spartan dormitory every inch of space seemed to be taken up with metal bunk beds. There was a primitive kitchen area and a space where washing hung on lines.

"Who runs this place?" I asked, as we returned to the courtyard.

"A cousin of mine," said the old man. "He’s the kyai, the head teacher. He and his family own the school."

"Do the children pay?"

"A little. We have some farm land and we do some printing. We get gifts from rich friends. This morning we had a visit from a member of the Supreme Advisory Council. Have you heard of that?"

"Yes. They give advice to the President. Are you political?"

He laughed. "We are religious. Not political."

"What do the children study?"

"Islam and other subjects."

"Do the students become good citizens?"

He laughed again. "We have a good effect on some of them. Around here there are many bad influences."

"I’ve heard there are hotels in the Puncak where there are things like gambling. And in Jakarta there are schoolchildren who fight each other with knives. But this country still seems more peaceful than most."

"Islam means peace," said my host, looking totally at ease with the world.

"You don’t want to go to war against Israel?"

He grinned. "The Koran says, ‘Don’t begin a war. God doesn’t love aggressors.’"

"Are there any militants around this part of Java?" The old man seemed so easy going that I doubted he would take offence at my probing questions.

"There are a few young men who are angry. There are the occasional militant preachers. But I’m not one of those rich young men educated in the Middle East."

"Here you have to worry about Aceh and East Timor," I commented.

He laughed again. "We have to worry about the gangsters controlling the bus stations and the markets; and golf courses springing up everywhere. Come into the office and have some tea."

We sat on well-worn armchairs in an office containing a rusty filing cabinet, various sports trophies and not much else. After some idle chit-chat, and the serving of the tea by a young boy with mischievous dark eyes, my host asked me a few questions about myself. After he had established that I was a harmless teacher, he lay back in his chair, and, after some prompting from me, proceeded to open up on the subject of militant Islam.

"There have been problems," he said. "In 1984, at Tanjung Priok in Jakarta, there was a serious incident. Do you know the story?"

"I heard that a soldier went into a prayer house to tear down some posters. There was a scuffle. Some Moslems were taken to the police station. There was then a march by over a thousand Moslems to the police station to try to free these prisoners. Soldiers opened fire. The army said that about thirty people died."

"Some people say the army killed about four hundred people," said the old man, in a slight whisper, "and then buried the bodies in secret graves. That was when Murdani was army chief and Sutrisno was Jakarta military commander. You can understand that some Moslems were not pleased with these two generals, one a Christian, one a Moslem."

"Was the army worried that the protesters wanted more democracy or wanted a more Islamic state?"

"Probably both. I think it was mainly about poverty. Very few Indonesians want an Islamic state."

"Some Indonesians want an Islamic state?"

"About forty years ago, there was an organisation called Negara Islam Indonesia, or NII. It wanted to set up an Islamic state. In recent months the authorities have arrested about one thousand people said to be linked to NII." He paused to sip his tea.

"Who are these people? Middle class?" I asked.

"One of the leaders is supposed to be a former army officer. Another is rumoured to be a teacher at an Islamic school. But most of them are probably lower class, and worried about poverty and injustice."

"Are these NII people dangerous?"

"If there was a fair election, they’d get very, very few votes. Megawati would win with her secular party."

"So the NII are not a problem?"

"Who knows? It depends how much support they have from any foreign country wanting to change the government?"

"Which foreign country?"

"Certain Western countries have supported extremist Moslems in the past. They did it here in the 1950s. They did it in Afghanistan."

"How much support is there for NII within the Indonesian army?"

"It’s probably just a handful of the middle and lower ranks of the army who support NII. They’ll be people who’re fed up with corruption. In the future though things could change."

"How’s that?"

"Overpopulation and lack of education. One hundred years ago Java had only 4 million people. Now it’s 100 million. There’s not enough jobs or land. Good jobs in Jakarta go to the rich who can use computers. These are often people educated in Christian schools. Often Chinese or children of the elite."

"Do you have computers here?"

"No." My host looked slightly embarrassed.

"The education here is mainly about Islam?" I asked. "Arab law, Arab culture and so on?"

"We are traditional Moslems. Not orthodox Moslems. It’s not just religion we teach. We do the normal school subjects. We teach farming skills. Some of the students, those who think about these things, want to live in the way their grandparents lived. They want to be simple farmers and good Moslems."

"A world from the past. No hamburgers or internet."

"No drugs or nightclubs. I think it’s not just here that people want a simpler Islamic world."

"Malaysia?" I suggested.

"Malaysia has had its Al Arqam Islamic group. In Malaysia it’s often the Chinese who have the education and the top jobs."

"The Philippines?"

"The Moslems in Mindanao feel their land is being taken over by Christians from other islands. In some churches, in the Philippines, the Moslems are referred to as ‘the enemy’. You know the Moslems were in Mindanao before the Christians."

"There is a problem for Moslems," I said, feeling it was safe to be outspoken. "In the Middle Ages, in the 14th century, Islamic civilisation was the most advanced in the world. But now some Moslem schools lack things like computers. And a lot of the students seem to be being seduced by American junk culture."

My host smiled. "We have to trust in God," he said.

"I’m sure you’re right. I think the students around here look happier than American schoolchildren."

The glasses which had contained our tea were empty. I stood up, my host escorted me back into the sunlight and I received a firm and friendly handshake. Outside the boarding school, some young teenagers posed alongside the old man for a photograph. They did not look like disciplined, brainwashed fanatics. The grinning boys jostled each other for the best position in the centre of the group; several of them had their arms around each other; the bolder ones thrust out their hips like pop stars; one held up his hand with a three finger salute; and one was scratching his crotch.