Islamic school offers Indonesian Muslims a progressive education, but moderates may be losing ground

Jakarta, Indonesia • Mention an Islamic school and many Americans will conjure a mental image of shaking fists, chanting students and hateful slogans aimed at Western enemies.

Such pictures, though, do not apply to the Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School in South Jakarta (a short drive from downtown unless there is a soul-crushing traffic jam) or to the polite, sophisticated Muslim students who spend their days and nights on the manicured campus.

Its aim is to provide a modern, progressive education that balances religious training with secular knowledge, offering specific expertise in technology. It works to produce ambitious female and male graduates who travel, work and contribute to a wider society.

Some even end up attending colleges in a nation so many Arab Muslims seem to deplore: the United States.

“We accept everyone from every country,” Vaza Zuvarullutvan, a 17-year-old student who aspires to be a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, told visiting international journalists in October. “Islam can have a brother from another country. We were created to know each other.”

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Vaza Zuvarullutvan, 17-year-old student at the Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School in Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017

The curriculum is the same for both genders and includes science, math, Arabic, English and religion.

Another student, Saritasya Mahrima, hopes to get a graduate degree in mathematics and become a lecturer.

“We learn about other cultures,” she said. “I have learned a lot about unity.”

Sure, they are devout Muslims, who practice their Islamic principles with exactness. Discipline is tantamount and infractions strictly punished.

Female students — who make up about half the 2,200 attendees from elementary to high school — are covered from head to toe, even in sweltering heat. All dormitories and classes are segregated by gender, as are the extracurricular activities. Girls have their marching band, swimming and basketball; boys have drumming, Scouts and martial arts.

The evenhanded and multifaceted aspects of Darunnajah — one of nearly 30,000 Islamic boarding schools in the world’s most populous Muslim nation — reflect Indonesia’s long-standing, pluralistic approach to Islam.

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Boys practicing martial arts at Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School in Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017

Now some worry such moderation is threatened by a rising tide of extremism in this country of islands.

Jakarta’s popular former governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, was charged with blasphemy for saying Islam’s holy book, the Quran, allowed a Muslim to vote for a non-Muslim. He was found guilty this spring and is serving a two-year prison sentence.

Ahok was a “double-minority — ethnic Chinese and Christian — and a poster boy for Indonesia’s pluralism and religious tolerance,” writes Benedict Rogers in the May issue of The Diplomat. “His three years as governor of the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation was, in the opinion of many, marked by extraordinary improvements in public services, a fight against corruption, and a sharp intolerance of inefficiency.”

In the piece, Andreas Harsono, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Jakarta, offers this dire warning: “In 10 years, Indonesia could be Pakistan. No bars, no beer, very limited rights for minorities, and women completely covered, especially in the most conservative Muslim areas. And there might be big violence.”

Many Mormons — who are a tiny minority in Jakarta — were “big fans of Ahok’s, primarily because he was not corrupt and he did a lot of good for the city,” says Chad Emmett, a Brigham Young University professor who was an LDS missionary in Indonesia and is writing a history of the LDS church there. “Some of the members even took to wearing plaid shirts, which were the signature shirts of both Ahok and [former governor and current president] Jokowi, a Muslim.”

Voters across the country are fretting.

(Mike Stack | For the Tribune) Yenny Wahid, director of the Wahid Foundation, talks to press and students in Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017.

At a recent meeting of the International Association of Religion Journalists in Jakarta, prominent Muslims discussed whether their faith was compatible with democracy.

Islam teaches “equality, justice and human dignity,” said Yenny Wahid, director of the Wahid Foundation and daughter of the country’s former President Wahid. “Those are the bones of democracy.”

She cautioned her listeners not to let “extremists control the narrative.”

Radicals have more passion for their cause, Wahid said. “Moderates need to fight back.”

(Mike Stack | For the Tribune) Abdul Mu'ti, secretary-general of Muhammadiyah, talks to Indonesian media in Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017.

Abdul Mu’ti, Muhammadiyah’s secretary-general of the moderate Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, which has 30 million members, was optimistic about Indonesian democracy.

“We celebrate diversity,” he said. “We can access the richness of our country.”

However, he, too, acknowledged the problem of religious complacency in the face of troubling rigidity and persecution.

“We have to become radical moderates,” Mu’ti said. “Moderate Muslims have been sleeping. We have kept silent. We have become lazy tolerant.”

Editor’s note • Peggy Fletcher Stack is a founding member of the International Association of Religion Journalists and was a speaker at the Oct. 17-19 conference in Jakarta.

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Girl Scouts salute at Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School in Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017