A group of ten Muslim students gathered in the shady courtyard of central Jakarta’s Roman Catholic Cathedral are reluctant to pass through its neo-Gothic doorways.
Some argue that entering the cathedral would contravene their devotion to Islam and equate to an abandonment of faith. Their guide responds with the question, “Have you ever visited Borobudur (the ninth-century Buddhist temple in Central Java which attracts millions of domestic tourists annually)?”
“Yes, of course,” they reply.
“Then what is the difference between going there and entering this church?”
Unable to counter this logic, most of the teenagers agree to follow him inside.
Their guide, M Abdullah Darraz, Executive Director of the Maarif Institute, believes this acceptance represents a turning point for the hard-line youths. Exposure to difference can be the first step towards breaking down intolerance.
The cathedral visit is one of several activities organised by the Jakarta-based Maarif Institute as part of its annual youth camp, which has run since 2011 and aims to counter exclusive religious views and prevent radicalisation among young people. The National Jamboree invites 100 high-school students from around the country for a week of “experiential learning”, including excursions and discussion of what it means to be a young Indonesian.
In 2017 the Maarif Institute received approximately 450 applications from 57 schools in 19 provinces. Prospective participants are asked to write about religious identity and diversity in Indonesia, and their motivations for joining the program. Preference is given to submissions that show signs of intolerance, which Maarif researchers believe young Indonesians are exposed to during extracurricular religious activities organised through public high schools.
After the school bell
Rohani Islam (or Rohis) is a nationwide movement for the advancement of Islamic faith and knowledge, delivered through after-class study groups, sermons, and student mentoring engagements. The practice took off following the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, but observers now worry that exclusive or even radical views may dominate much Rohis activism.
A 2017 Wahid Institute study which interviewed more than 1600 Rohis participants found that more than 40% of respondents supported a cause to render Indonesia an Islamic state under a caliphate, and 60% would travel abroad for jihad if given the chance.
According to Darraz, parents are generally unconcerned about their children’s sectarian views. For them, ostensibly pious study groups are a far more acceptable extracurricular pursuit than taking drugs, having premarital sex, or participating in tawuran (organised high-school street violence).
The Indonesian Government is aware of the problem, but the scale and sensitivity of the issue makes remedial action difficult. Rohis activities come under the authority of the Intra-School Student Organisation (OSIS) which is regulated by the Ministry of Education. Although relationships between OSIS and outside organisations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), are technically forbidden, monitoring remains difficult.
Rohis has become a way for third-party groups with hard-line views to engage and recruit young Indonesians.
More constructive engagement
The Maarif Institute’s initiatives offer a modest but much-needed counterweight to the potentially detrimental influence of Rohis.
The one-week National Jamboree involves a specially designed textbook that includes twelve thematic chapters, covering concepts such as faith, curiosity, justice, empathy, tolerance, and democracy. The foundational Indonesian state philosophy of Pancasila features prominently. Discussions are led by guest speakers such as an Indonesian journalist who reported from Syria during the early stages of conflict.
Following interactive lessons, the groups undertake voluntary community work in surrounding neighbourhoods. During the 2017 camp, Maarif staff took Jamboree participants to an orphanage run by a Christian church in South Jakarta, providing an opportunity for outreach and a first-hand look at the charitable work of other faiths.
Evoking the digital native
At the conclusion of past camps, thirty of the Jamboree’s high achievers were invited to take part in “peace journalism” training. The three-day workshop in Jakarta aimed to strengthen participants’ media literacy, enhance their critical thinking skills, and teach them how to produce and edit their own short films.
Support from Google has now enabled Maarif to broaden its ambitions. In 2017 the initiative hosted 1250 students over five separate workshops in Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Yogyakarta, and Semarang. Initial discussions addressed online and offline challenges to Pancasila, and subsequent brainstorming activities focused on methods of countering harmful messages and propaganda.
Of the 250 participants present at each event, 50 were selected to return for a second day concentrated on content production. In groups of five members, students created short films conveying themes, such as religious diversity and equality, using both drama and comedy. The clips were uploaded to YouTube and shared on social media.
In coming years, the Maarif Institute hopes to expand the initiative to include participants in Sumatra and Sulawesi.
Youth-led and positive
Countries around the world are undertaking efforts to prevent radicalisation among young people. While these efforts are tailored to their national context, one dynamic that transcends culture is the importance of aspirational youth leadership. Lectures from senior educators on responsibility and the perils of extremism will never be as effective as interactive sessions organised by passionate young people.
Maarif camp facilitators are young and take pride in encouraging their Jamboree protégés to become youth leaders back in their respective cities, towns, and villages. Ideally, they will carry forth messages of tolerance and inclusivity, and one day guide sceptical peers into the sanctuaries of other faiths.