The radicalization of students and how to deal with them

Studies suggest that the emergence of radicalism at Indonesian universities represents little more than a search for identity typical of persons of student age. However, the overriding Muslim experience tends to create a “them and us” view of life that is potentially dangerous and definitely divisive.

The radicalization of students and how to deal with them AFP Photo/Agus Wardoyo

Media hype has raised concerns that a new wave of conservatism is sweeping Indonesian universities. Is radicalization on university campuses a new and potentially dangerous phenomenon? The National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) last year listed seven prominent universities as infiltrated by radical organizations: the University of Indonesia in Depok, West Java Province; Bandung Institute of Technology in Bandung, West Java; Bogor Agricultural University in Bogor, West Java; Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java Province; Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology in Surabaya, East Java Province; Airlangga University in Surabaya, East Java; and Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java.

The agency did not explain the methodology it used to determine these campuses were spots for radical activism, which has worried Indonesian academics. A lack of clarity only reinforces disquiet, without offering clues for addressing the problem. What is clear is that the BNPT announcement was triggered by a police raid at Riau University, in Sumatra, and the arrest of three alumni on terrorism charges, following a series of deadly suicide attacks in Riau and Surabaya in May 2018. Incidentally, the university was not mentioned among those the BNPT considers radicalized.

While the process of radicalization is a complex sociopolitical phenomenon that is difficult to bracket, the most powerful driver, studies show, is the search for personal and group identity among those who feel their lives have been undermined by social change or by the authorities. A resurgence of clear-cut identities, be they religious, ideological or ethnic, is a global phenomenon not confined to the Muslim world. But since Islam is the dominant religion in Indonesia, the focus will obviously be here. Other factors that causally inspire a radical turn, especially among younger generations, are also at play. According to a 2017 Oxfam report, the wealthiest percent of the Indonesian population owns nearly half of the nation’s total wealth, which means that the richest have captured most of the benefits of nearly two decades of strong economic growth. 

The country’s shift to a laissez-faire economy has been followed by widening inequality, and demands for social justice are not surprising. Islam is unequivocal about social justice and Muslim movements – liberal, moderate and radical – never fail to advocate for it. Heightened individual religiosity and the process of democratization, ongoing since the late 1990s, yield a political discourse that comfortably contains religious themes. This was not possible earlier. The presence of radical organizations, also on campuses, is not new. By paying attention to the past, we should be more aware of the process and be immune to possible scaremongering.

New face, old fight   

The Soekarno and Soeharto regimes regarded political Islam as a potential threat to the nationalist basis of the state and both restricted the activities of parties and mass organizations with Islamic leanings, especially those that strove for the implementation of Shariah law or the establishment of an Islamic state.

Under Soekarno, the government charged with subversion and outlawed Muslim movements such as Masyumi, whose leaders supported an insurgency in Sumatra in the late 1950s. Soeharto’s New Order regime, throughout its 32-year rule, was even more notorious for marginalizing Islamic organizations and removing them from the political landscape. The fall of the regime and the abolition of legal

Although Indonesian Islamist parties have not been successful, political Islam has thrived since the late 1990s. Democratization has also enabled more participation by Islamic movements opposed to democratic politics.

instruments used against Muslim groups, especially the 1963 Anti-Subversion Law (repealed in 1999), hastened the re-emergence of political Islam. Dozens of Islamic parties contested the 1999 parliamentary elections, the first democratic vote in the post-Soeharto era. Their number, however, did not translate into an electoral majority. In 2004, similarly, parties advocating Islamic law or state were unsuccessful. The 2009 elections produced a temporary swing in electoral sentiment, with the fundamentalist Prosperous Justice Party winning nearly 8 percent of the vote and becoming part of the governing coalition of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The party was less successful in 2014 and is not expected to fare particularly well in parliamentary elections scheduled for April 17. 

A poll by the Indonesian Survey Circle, released on Sept 12, indicated that the nationalist Nahdlatul Ulama-backed National Awakening Party is the only Muslim party likely to cross the electoral threshold of 4 percent to secure seats in Parliament. Although Islamist parties have not been successful, political Islam has thrived since the late 1990s. Democratization has also enabled more participation by Islamic movements opposed to democratic politics. As Joseph Chinyong Liow observed in a 2008 paper for NBR Analysis, some such movements were advancing their agendas by exploiting the opportunities and freedoms provided in a democracy to pass Shariah-based bylaws at the local and provincial levels. This process continues today, as Islamic-inspired regulations have been passed not only in semi-autonomous Aceh Province, but also in Padang regency, West Sumatra Province, Bulukumba regency in South Sulawesi Province, and Pamekasan regency, on the island of Madura in East Java. 

This undemocratic turn is also reflected in student activism. It is not new, but it is more open and visible since the regime no longer restrains it, and since the flow of information has been greatly increased by modern technologies and social media. Today’s religion-based organizations can voice their political views, whereas under Soeharto they had to focus on education and social work or their members would have most likely faced arrest. 

The old guard

The main Islamic organization on Indonesian campuses during the New Order was the moderately reformist Muslim Students Association (HMI). It remains powerful today, but more players have entered the scene in the past decades. Another organization was the Masyumi-linked Campus Dakwah Organization, which facilitated the reach of the Islamic Propagation Council of Indonesia to university students. The council is a scripturalist Muslim organization that, according to many scholars of Indonesian Islam, supports anti-American, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian narratives. The International Crisis Group has linked some of its charity and relief activities to funding jihadi activities during the communal conflicts in Maluku and Poso, in Central Sulawesi Province. Like many other such organizations it has penetrated the circles of power: Fadli Zon, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, is an alumnus. 

Recently banned radical group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, whose influence on campuses has been considered the main threat of late, entered universities in the 1980s through the Campus Dakwah Organization. Media claims that its presence is a new phenomenon are not well grounded. A newer fundamentalist group formed after the fall of Soeharto is the Action Committee of Indonesian Muslim Students (Kammi), which is close, both ideologically and personally, to the Prosperous Justice Party. It is affiliated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. 
Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and Kammi have recently become more popular among students than the moderate HMI. According to Hamid Basyaib, a senior columnist, political analyst and HMI alumnus, it is possible that the young, who are still full of idealism, may feel disappointed by the fall from grace of politicians who in their past were prominent HMI members. Corruption scandals involving former Golkar Party chairman Akbar Tanjung, former Democratic Party chairman Anas Urbaningrum and many more of a similar caliber might have tarnished HMI’s reputation in the eyes of student activists. Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and Kammi probably appear to them as still clean and devoted to their cause. They are also less complex. While HMI activists represented a variety of views on Islamic politics, these two groups remain anchored to single-narrative lines, which may appeal to many young people who seek meaning in their lives and are disappointed with the status quo.    

Radicalization and identity

Identity-formation is a normal and universal process, but also a particularly important driver in radicalization, according to widely accepted research by Britain’s Department for International Development. Samsu Rizal Panggabean, of the Center for Security and Peace Studies at Gadjah Mada University, in Yogyakarta, and Ihsan Ali-Fauzi, of the Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy (PUSAD Paramadina), analyzed in an unpublished 2010 report the British agency’s hypotheses on drivers of radicalization in the Indonesian context. The strongest evidence pointed to the identity search hypothesis, which is also most relevant to the current situation. 

According to their study – based on print sources, focus group discussions and interviews – radicalism among the young is caused by the feeling of being marginalized, which is followed by the need to find ideas and meaning to survive. The youth interviewed found this meaning in radical groups, which provided them with a sense of certainty and emotional comfort. 

Violent extremism expert Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi of HIVE, a Pakistani organization dedicated to training, research, resource development and social innovation to counter extremism, sees radicalization as a form of identity crisis. “These youth in the modern world, in which they are getting a Western education

Indonesian authorities became aware that radical religious advocacy could be utilized for political advantage to an extent far greater than they had expected.

from universities, suffer from some kind of identity crisis and … what makes sense to them, what is easier is not a nuanced approach to how the world is very conflicted, with its dilemmas and contradictions, but the black-and-white approach, the polarized world – ‘us against them, we are being oppressed, they are the oppressors,’” he said. Indonesian counterterrorism expert Noor Huda Ismail also tends to stress the identity aspect and it being “in opposition” to the dominant discourse. “Being a radical is often interpreted as a ‘counterculture’ for some young people. They do not like the ‘mainstream,’ and therefore being moderate is maybe not ‘cool’ for them,” Huda told Deutsche Welle last year.

According to Zaidi, when Islamic aspirations come into touch with globalization, which is mainly a Western project, those who fear it will affect their Muslim identity start to ask questions, ranging from what to wear and whether one should keep a beard to how to perceive war, natural rights and human rights – whether they are a Western instrument too or a universal thing, and whether they are in accordance with Islamic values. This view is supported by the findings of Panggabean and Ali-Fauzi in the Indonesian context: members of radical groups share the same dissatisfaction with society and strengthen their identity by pursuing lifestyles that distinguish them from non-Muslims. They also seek simplified worldviews and single narratives, which radical groups can offer and justify. “They believe the world is extremely polarized, between good and bad, between us and them, black and white,” Zaidi said. “They are seeking some kind of meaning in their life, and that meaning transforms into a purpose that is a road to radicalization. They want to avenge violence, which is there.”

Wars in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan are perceived as a global attack on Islam. Muslim nations are seen as less prosperous as a result of Western policies. Resentment may encourage radical views and support for extremist groups. Both Zaidi and Huda stress, however, that there is no causal link between

radical ideas and radical actions. “As long as radicalization remains a thought and not an action, we do not need to take legal measures. We simply understand that there is a symptom of radicalism within the campus,” Huda told Deutsche Welle.


Concerns remain, however, and they are justified. After mass rallies by hard-line Muslim groups against then-Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in 2016 and 2017, Indonesian authorities became aware that radical religious advocacy can be utilized for political advantage to an extent far greater than they had expected.

BNPT’s precautions ahead of April’s presidential and legislative elections are well understood, but managing the growing prominence of political Islam, especially in its radical expression, requires a nuanced and sophisticated approach. Indonesia’s recent deradicalization efforts have been criticized as being undertaken without examining available data and research findings. Last year’s collaborative work by a group of prominent scholars, published by PUSAD Paramadina, “Kebebasan, Toleransi dan Terorisme: Riset dan Kebijakan Agama di Indonesia” (“Freedom, Tolerance and Terrorism: Research on Religious Policy-Making in Indonesia”), indicates that the BNPT paid more attention to research, also for the sake of policy-making, when it was led by the current head of the National Police, Gen Tito Karnavian, who besides having vast experience in counterterrorism, has made a great contribution to security studies. 

Karnavian’s scholarship, according to the researchers, provides essential information for the development of deradicalization programs. This means that Indonesian authorities have the knowledge to address the problem when radical ideas begin to be translated into radical acts. Karnavian prioritizes what he calls the “soft approach” in facing Islamist groups and his program has been implemented by the police. For example, police teams would meet with convicted terrorists and ask about their needs. A former Poso militant told the Paramadina researchers that he could complain to Karnavian at any time. 

Police also carried out a program for the families of terrorism convicts. They tried to help by providing health care and paying for the education of the children of convicts. They would show that the state was present when it was needed. This strategy should be more effective with those who are not engaged in violence, whose radicalism is only in thoughts, not deeds. Crackdowns on activists, particularly young ones who feel they have much less to lose than mature politicians with established lives and careers, may put them on the defensive. This could result in a reaction equal and opposite to the action represented by the crackdowns, but also in a proclivity for extremism or establishing links with militants, which otherwise would not be on their agenda. The soft approach, at least initially, appears to be essential.

Natalia Laskowska is an analyst at Concord Consulting in Jakarta.

You need to login to write a comment!