Are Indonesian Universities Really a Breeding Ground For Terrorism?

The BNPT thinks so, but experts aren't so convinced.
September 6, 2018, 10:22am
Students attend an anti-radicalism event in this file photo by Beawiharta/ Reuters

Can you judge a school by its worst student? How about an entire education system? The answer to that question is at the heart of what's become a national conversation in Indonesia about Islamic radicalism on college campuses.

A recent survey conducted by the national anti-terrorism agency (BNPT) found that 39 percent of university students subscribed to beliefs that could be considered "radical." That survey, which was conducted in 15 provinces and across a wide range of universities, then went even further, identifying seven universities with what the BNPT considered hotbeds of radicalism. Included in that list were two of the nation's most-prestigious schools—the University of Indonesia (UI) and Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).

President Joko Widodo addressed the report during a recent press event, telling reporters that his government was committed to expanding its counter-radicalization programs. "Radicalism didn't emerge suddenly, it was a long process," Jokowi told the local media.

But what, exactly, does the central government want to do? Alarmed by the BNPT survey, as well as the bust of what seemed to be an orchestrated terrorist cell operating on the campus of Pekanbaru's University of Riau, the Ministry of Education said it would allow spies on campuses. The argument here is that universities have a real radicalism problem, and these spies from the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and the BNPT could monitor students for signs of radicalism while also hosting anti-radicalism seminars on campus. They've already started holding the seminars, and while no one will publicly say it—spying being, at its heart, a secretive act—there's little doubt they've started to spy on students as well.

Watch: This Indonesian School Is Deradicalizing The Children Of Convicted Terrorists

But is it really as bad as the surveys say? Are Indonesian campuses full of radicalized students? The experts don't think so. Najib Azca, who studies radicalism at Gadjah Mada University, said that while plenty of students might be bigoted or religious fundamentalists, there's a long road to go before those beliefs turn into actual terrorism.

“There may be students who fall into discursive radicalism, think radically, or support violent acts, either directly or indirectly," Najib told VICE. “But there is only small possibility that it leads to terrorism.”

The big question here then is how, exactly, the central government defines radicalism. The BNPT has refused to release the methodology behind its survey, arguing that it was a state secret. But the BNPT isn't the only agency to study radicalism on university campuses.

Al Chaidar, a terrorism expert at Malikussaleh University, in Aceh, has researched the rise of radicalism amongst students and he found that while extreme views may be common enough on some campuses, there's no evidence that the student body is actively on a fast track to terrorism. Instead, many of these so-called radicals use fundamentalist Islam as a way to critique the government, he explained.

That word, fundamentalism, is a key distinction here. While radicalism is in like with the likes of the Islamic State and their ilk, fundamentalism is closer to the now-banned Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia—a group that both wants to establish an Islamic caliphate, but is also opposed to terrorism.

"They might support the HTI caliphate, but they are anti-terrorism," Al Chaidar told VICE. "Radicalism within college students was merely fanaticism."

The government and university rectors argue that the situation is far worse than most people realize. And, in most instances, the point to a single name as an example: Muhammad Nur Zamzam. Zamzam was arrested, alongside several others, during that terrorism bust on the campus of the University of Riau, where he was making bombs so deadly that police referred to them as the "mother of satan." The police also found hand grenades, an air soft rifle, and a jihadi text titled Perjalanan Rahasia, or the secret journey.

Zamzam was already an alumni of the university at that point, but he stuck around to hang with his radicalized friends. His former friends told reporters that they weren't surprised at all by Zamzam's arrest—they had been waiting for this day all along. During his university years, Zamzam turned from a regular college student who liked to drink and usually skipped his prayers into a hardcore fundamentalist who spent his free time learning archery.

"All of a sudden, he started bragging that he wanted to do jihad, talking about bombs and going to Syria," one of his former friends, a man named Syahrul Mubarak, told the Jakarta Post. "We, the friends who usually hung out with him, of course laughed at him. Don’t get us wrong, he is not a devout figure. He does not even pray five times a day. If there were people drinking together, he joined [them]."

But here's the thing, while Zamzam was on campus at the time, it doesn't mean that he was radicalized there. Instead, he became radicalized after watching some videos about Palestine and the Islamic State online. When he told all of his friends about this stuff, most of them would just laugh it off, Syahrul said, telling reporters that they all thought it was just "tall tales."

"We’ve predicted all of this," he told local media. "We were waiting for Densus 88 to come and arrest him."

So is one person indicative of the whole? The authorities seem to think so, and now, with the sweeping powers handed to them under Jokowi's new anti-terrorism law, they don't even need to answer this question anymore. Because when the definition of a terrorist gets this loose, there are bound to be a lot more Zamzams out there, regardless of whether they were planning an actual attack or not.