Another form of jihad: 'Jawi' students in the Middle East
Zacky Khairul Umam
The Jakarta Post
Dozens of Indonesian jihadists are taking up arms in the current Syrian war after entering the battlefield through Turkey and Morocco. Indonesian diplomats in Turkey have in particular expressed concern over the fact that the Indonesian jihadists include two youths who go to religious schools in Kayseri, an industrialized city in Central Anatolia.
The number of the Indonesian jihadists is indeed minuscule compared to the hundreds of Indonesian students currently pursuing academic degrees in many universities in Turkey. Nobody, however, can predict the scope of these students' activities within the milieu of the war in Syria.
Some are anxious that they could broaden the unseen network of Islamic militias in Southeast Asia, beyond the borders of Indonesia and neighboring states.
Some of them may decide not to return to their homelands, just to propagate conservative culture and sow the seeds of jihad in its infamous interpretation of holy wars against indeterminate infidels among Muslim societies across Southeast Asia.
The notion of jihad is contagious among young people, and is much more influential than the creed to dedicate their corporal bodies to the well-being of others.
We cannot exclusively pin our hopes on Ankara or authorities in other states in the Middle East to annihilate the growing number of jihadists from Southeast Asia, despite the termination of funding from the Arabian Peninsula. We should nonetheless pay close attention to their activities in our homeland.
We have certainly failed to identify how they fund their activities, because even after access to their financiers was cut off they are still mobilizing.
It is possible that they have become more financially independent by setting up certain businesses, taking advantage of the growing local market to finance their activities.
It would therefore be in the country's best interests to improve the well-being of Indonesian students in the Middle East by curbing the infectious movement of jihadism.
The Indonesian government often neglects Indonesian students in the region. There is of course continuous minimal funding for students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and some other renowned institutions.
Our government does not have sufficient funds for Indonesian students interested in languages, cultures and anything from the Middle East, especially Islamic tradition in Arabic, Persian and Turkish speaking countries.
The majority of Indonesian students who pursue academic degrees in the region receive aid from governments in the Middle East. Only Malaysians, perceived as being financially capable, rarely require scholarships like Indonesians.
In 2012, the number of Malaysian students in Cairo totaled 10,000, compared with 6,000 Indonesian students. This is possibly due to the economic welfare of Malaysians, which has steadily improved from 1990s onward.
Thousands more Indonesian students are scattered across the Arabian Peninsula, North and East Africa as well as Turkey and Iran. Many excellent scholarship programs have recently been provided by the Turkish government, in addition to programs offered by private institutions like the Gulen movement, opening up more opportunities for students from Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia. In Iran the government offers few scholarships to Indonesian students, but hundreds of Indonesians can study at Qom seminaries thanks to scholarships from religious-based institutions in the country.
The Indonesian government needs to monitor the number of students in the Middle East cautiously. Not all of them of course need the government's help, but in many cases the limited funding they receive during their studies will justify their acceptance of money from unknown sources that could organize certain indoctrinated programs.
Expecting scholarships from Western countries for study in the Middle East is unlikely as they typically dismiss Middle East as a potential place to study. They frequently view the region with partial images of religious bigotry.
In our country, Middle Eastern universities have been criticized, the way many Arabs or Turkish fellows have prejudices about our education system or culture in general.
It has been argued that government funding for Indonesian citizens studying in the Middle East will ease the transfer of knowledge from the Middle East with different points of view.
Middle Eastern culture, history, geography, economy and politics are pivotal to understanding our own history and future development.
The government can in part control the mobility of ideas and movements from the Middle East to Indonesia by funding programs intended to understand the long history and culture of the two different societies.
They perhaps can intensify ties between Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian students and diplomats through cooperation in the fields of science, technology, arts, music literature.
Other vibrant aspects of the Middle East should be covered in our news and public spheres in order to alter the one-dimensional portrayal of Salafi capture.
If we are proud of our history, which has produced high caliber Jawi scholars, as Southeast Asian or Indonesian intellectuals were called in the past, in the Middle East, the same pride can be achieved by absorbing as many enlightening perspectives as possible.
It should be noted that Europe transferred knowledge from the Middle East in the early modern period and now we learn about 'modernity' from Europe.
So why shouldn't we study the roots of the Enlightenment embedded in Islamic scholarly tradition from classical to modern periods? Intellectual jihad is the best way to defeat our ignorance.
The writer, now pursuing a PhD in Islamic intellectual history at Freie Universitaet Berlin, is conducting research on the foundations of modern Sunni reformism in Istanbul.
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