Center for Strategic Communication

by Mark Woodward*

Over the last year it has become increasingly apparent to progressive Indonesian Muslim intellectuals and political leaders that there is a clear association between the spread of Wahhabi religious teachings and political extremism. In the weeks following the Ritz-Carlton and J. W. Marriott bombings in Jakarta, discourse about the dangers of Wahhabism has intensified because it is now clear that Wahhabi-oriented Indonesian extremists carried out the attacks.

It is also clear that only a small minority of the Indonesian Muslims who accept Wahhabi religious teachings are violent extremists. Most practice the austere, puritanical and religiously intolerant version of Islam, not for political reasons, but because they believe that this is what God intended Islam to be.[1] It is equally clear that almost all violent extremists in Indonesia, and most of the rest of the Sunni Muslim world, justify violence on the basis of Wahhabi teachings.[2]

In a previous posting I described efforts by the Saudi Arabian state, foundations and wealthy individuals to use economic enticements to spread Wahhabism as a new form of colonialism, the goal of which is to radically transform most aspects of Indonesian cultures. I did not invent the term “Wahhabi Colonialism.” I first heard it nearly a year ago from a horse cart driver who used it to describe Saudi attempts to link disaster relief with the acceptance of Wahhabi religious teachings.

In the last year this perception has become increasingly common. “Wahhabi” is now a derogatory term among those who reject political extremism and puritanical religious teachings. It is frequently associated with political extremism, religious bigotry and violence. Saidiman (many Indonesians have only one name) from the Liberal Islam Network made the point very clearly:

Many observers argued that almost every militant Islamic movement today is part of, or at least influenced by, Wahhabism. Where trouble is found, Wahhabism may thrive. Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida, which have been launching several terrors across the world for years, have officially adopted this ideology. Wahhabi extremism and terrorism continue to plague Indonesia, although its real supporters in this country are few in number.

Those who accept some or all Wahhabi religious teachings but who reject political extremism are increasingly defensive. Even the leaders of Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Justice and Prosperity Party, PKS), the Islamist political party with strong ties with Wahhabi religious teachings and the political agenda and tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood, now emphatically deny that they are Wahhabis.

In March 2009, PKS founder and former presidential candidate Hidayat Nurwahid called charges that PKS is Wahhabi “slanderous.” His reasoning was that the charge could not possibly true because PKS is a political party, and political parties are forbidden in Saudi Arabia. Nurwahid received a Ph.D. in Dakwah (propagation of the faith) the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia in 1992. He could not have better Wahhabi credentials. Very few Indonesians, other than PKS cadres, found his statement credible.

I described PKS’s tepid, almost defensive, response to the Jakarta bombings in a previous posting. There are aspects of the struggle against Wahhabism that are, for many Indonesians, more important than politics, and even bombings, because they are about very basic religious matters. They are not about life and death, but rather, life after death.[3]  These struggles are not overtly political but have political implications. One of the factors that limits the appeal of PKS and other Islamist groups is that they share the Wahhabi view that religious practices most Indonesian Muslims regard as basic elements of Islam are actually forbidden (haram) and that people who participate in them are destined for the fires of hell.

Indonesian Muslims take this issue very seriously. PKS leaders avoid public discussion of these issues, probably because they are aware that publicizing the party’s Wahhabi positions would limit its electoral appeal. The condemnation of traditional Islam and the teaching that “PKS Islam is the only Islam” play important roles in “in group” discussions and cadre training. Most politically aware Indonesians know about the party’s Wahhabi religious orientation. Many find PKS claims to be “pluralistic” unconvincing and believe that were it to come to power, it would move rapidly towards the formation of an authoritarian Islamic state based on a Saudi model, at least as far as religious and legal matters are concerned.

These issues have led the religiously conservative, but politically progressive, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) to become the most articulate opponent of political Islamism and Wahhabi religious views linked to it. Denunciation of devotional practices concerning the veneration of saints and prayers for dead has always been at the core of the Wahhabi religious agenda. The Saudis are literally despised by the majority of the world’s Muslims because they have desecrated the tombs of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina. NU was founded in 1928 in part as a protest against what traditional Indonesian Muslims consider to be Wahhabi sacrilege.

Pilgrimage to the graves of saints, especially the nine legendary Wali (saints) believed to have been responsible for the spread of Islam in Java (Indonesia’s most populous island) is an important component of the type of Islam NU expounds. Tens of thousands of Indonesian Muslims visit the tombs of the Walis, and lesser-known tombs of local saints, every day. They range from villagers, including the horse cart driver from whom I first heard the expression “Wahhabi colonialism” to many of Indonesia’s most prominent political and intellectual figures. They do not like to be told that they are going to hell.

Debates about religious practice are now closely associated with, and are indeed a part of, those concerning Indonesia’s political future. The intensity of this conflict was driven home to me today (August 16) when I attended a “Muslim Fair” supported by PKS and other Islamist organizations. PKS was actually one of the more moderate groups taking part in the event.

The fair featured booths selling Islamist and jihadi books, jihadi videos depicting the Taliban and bin Laden as “heroes of Islam,”  “Muslim” clothing, herbal medicines which many Islamists believe to be more effective than “Jewish” western medicines, and a speech by the Islamist cleric Abu Bakar Basyir, who only a few days ago offered prayers at the funerals of the Jakarta suicide bombers. Basyir is the spiritual leader of the violent Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah that was responsible for a series of attacks on western targets in Indonesia beginning with a foiled attempt to blow up airliners in flight over the Pacific Ocean in 1995 and including the 2002 “Bali bombings.”

In his Yogyakarta address Basyir was circumspect. He was only mildly critical of the bombers stating that, in his opinion, jihad is not an appropriate strategy for Indonesian Islamists at the present time. Almost in the same breath he described the Jakarta suicide bombers as martyrs; martyrs go directly to heaven when they die. Basyir also wrote a laudatory introduction to a series of posthumously published books by the three men executed for planning and carrying out the Bali attacks in which he described them as martyrs, who, of course, go directly to heaven.

Basyir is careful not to implicate himself in the planning or conduct of terrorist attacks. His statements and actions make it very clear that he endorses them, while at the same time doing nothing to give security forces “probable cause” that he is involved in planning them. Indonesians who have met him say this is in keeping with his usual practice. When people who are planning attacks seek his blessing, he generally does not respond directly, but his facial expressions clearly indicate approval or displeasure.

In addition to jihadi materials, there were books denouncing traditional Muslim devotional practices as unbelief. Some of these were Indonesian translations of standard Arabic Wahhabi texts. Others were more explicit attacks on traditional Indonesian Islam, including one describing pilgrimage to the tombs of the Nine Walis as unbelief and as shirk.[4]  Shirk is the association of other beings or powers with God. It is often translated as “polytheism.” It is a very serious sin that God will not forgive. People who practice it go to hell.

I chatted for a time with a group of PKS cadres who told me that this was a very good book because it applied general “Islamic” principles in an Indonesian context. I ask them whether people who visit tombs will go to hell. They replied in the affirmative. I bought a copy of the book and other research materials including a small collection of jihadi videos, had lunch some students from one of Yogyakarta’s secular universities and listened while they explained that re-establishing the Caliphate was the solution to Indonesia’s, and the world’s, problems.[5] They also provided me with a recording of Basyir’s sermon.

With the exception of Basyir’s speech, this Muslim Fair was a very unremarkable Islamist event similar to many others I have attended in the last 18 months. There were books on childcare, business management, the TOEFL exam and large numbers of children’s books and videos. This was entirely reasonable as most in attendance were young people in their twenties and thirties, many of whom brought small children with them. For many, the fair was a “family outing.” This speaks to the extent that a distinctive sub-culture of Islamist extremism has developed in Indonesia. Because substantial numbers of children are being raised in this sub-culture, the struggle against extremism will continue for generations. It is for this reason that Islamists are strongly natalist and promote polygamy as a strategy for producing more Islamist children. Many Islamist leaders, including those of PKS practice polygamy. Most progressive Muslims oppose it. I encountered several polygamous families at the fair.

Returning home, I checked my e-mail and found messages from an NU mailing list directing me to the organization’s Indonesian language website.  Several articles spoke of the need to combat political extremism. One explained that suicide bombers are definitely not martyrs. Because suicide is a very serious sin, it is, therefore, likely that they will go to hell. This is the strongest possible Islamic critique of suicide bombings.

Another message directly confronted Islamic critiques of traditional religious practice. It described a ceremony commemorating the death of the founder of one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic schools. Nuril Huda, the chairman of the NU dakwah committee, addressed the issue of Wahhabism very politely, but very firmly. He stated, “it is very disturbing that groups with the same basis as Wahhabis” are spreading propaganda according to which religious practices such as visiting graves “are not in accordance with Islamic guidance.” He continued that if members of these groups did not understand or had questions about these rituals, that they should, “seek guidance and clarification from NU scholars and teachers.” He concluded:

We will provide them with detailed religious proofs concerning all of the rituals we perform. We are not stupid people. As far as the Holy Books are concerned, we know very much more about them than people who can only read them in translation.

Huda’s concluding remark is stronger than it might appear. Fluency in Classical Arabic is an almost universally acknowledged as being essential for those would claim religious authority. Very few Indonesian Islamists, including PKS cadres, have this knowledge. All NU scholars and leaders do. At the same time his rhetorical style is the antithesis of that of Wahhabi activists. Huda did not refer to his opponents as kafir (unbelievers) but rather suggested that they are ignorant, deluded and in need of proper religious guidance.

This style is in keeping with Javanese and other Indonesian cultural values of politeness and rhetorical moderation and with the common Islamic theological view that only God can know who is a Muslim and who is not. It is dakwah in the sense that it is a call or invitation for errant believers to return to the straight path of Islam. It was also a very charitable offer, because Islamic law holds that a Muslim who calls a Muslim a kafir, becomes a kafir him/herself. It is a very serious sin, which if not recanted, will also lead to hell.

An NU student commented on line: “Looks like war, ya?” That is exactly what it is. The struggle against political extremism is also a struggle against the religious ideologies used to support and maintain it. Islamists seek to undermine traditional religious authorities who oppose political violence by propagating a version of Islam that holds traditional Muslim devotions to be “unbelief.” NU has now made it clear that it will engage forcefully in this struggle.

This is a theological war that can only be waged by Muslims, wielding theological weapons of their own making. The out come of this struggle will, however, significantly impact political struggles contested by progressive and extremist Muslim groups and are of greater interest and importance for the global community.

* Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He is Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University and Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, both in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.


[1] On Wahhabism see, N. DeLong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, for a sympathetic perspective and H. Algar, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay, New York: Islamic Publication International, 2002, for a more critical view. The term Wahhabi is used in many different ways. In a strict historical sense it refers to Muslims who subscribe to the teachings of the Arabian Hanbalite jurist Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) who sought to purge Islam of what he believed to be unlawful innovation in matters of religious practice. In contemporary Indonesia the term is used to refer to Muslims and Muslim organizations that use contemporary Saudi Arabian Islam as a model for belief and practice and condemn other forms of Islam and local cultures as unbelief.

[2] The evidence linking Wahhabi religious teachings with violent extremism is extensive and irrefutable. It is also important to keep in mind the fact that this is correlation, not causation. Some advocates of theological positions very similar to those of Wahhabis concerning religious practice are apolitical. Others are politically progressive and advocate human rights, religious and cultural pluralism, democracy and gender equality. A blanket denunciation of Wahhabi religious teachings as a cause of violence would be an irresponsible and reprehensible witch-hunt.

[3] I have included references to the consequences of human action for the after life in this paper because it is an issue of paramount importance in Indonesia and other Muslim societies. Because this issue is of such importance, an analysis that fails to consider it is necessarily incomplete.

[4] I. Muhammad Ali, Penjelasan Gamblang Seputar Hukum Ziarah Wali Songo, Bekasi Barat: Pustaka Al-Ummat, 2007.

[5] Students at Islamic universities are much less inclined towards extremist political or religious views because they have much more sophisticated understanding of Islamic texts and teachings.

I. Muhammad Ali, Penjelasan Gamblang Seputar Hukum Ziarah Wali Songo, Bekasi Barat: Pustaka Al-Ummat, 2007.