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An Excerpt from “Youth, Education, and Islamic Radicalism” by Mun’im Sirry

Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries in the world in terms of religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, but also in the complexity of its education system. Youth, Education, and Islamic Radicalism examines the roots of religious intolerance among young Indonesians and explores the various ways in which educated youth navigate radical ideologies amid growing religious conservatism.

Based on the narratives and testimonies of young people who were exposed to radical ideas, my findings show that there is no problem being Muslim and Indonesian at the same time and that emphasizing one’s Muslim identity does not mean reducing one’s Indonesian identity. When radicalized youth contrast two times in their lives (before and after “hijrah”), it does not need to be read as a binary construction between Islamic and Indonesian identity. Instead, it is a process of becoming a good Muslim. Some radicalized often refer to a prophet hadith, “those whose day is better than yesterday are prosperous.” Every Muslim, radical or not, holds this kind of understanding. What distinguishes radicalized youths from “ordinary Muslims” is the understanding that becoming more pious Muslims is manifested through following a particular version of Islam exclusively, adopting stricter ideologies, fighting for the application of Islamic Shari‘ah, and establishing an Islamic or caliphate state. In this context, deradicalization efforts must offer alternative narratives that expose students to various interpretations of Islam. As some of my informants complained, when radical ideas are introduced on public campuses, not many people can reject the arguments based on authoritative religious sources because there is a lack of religious knowledge among students. This fact also explains why radical groups often target public campuses as centers for spreading radical ideology. HTI, for example, was initially developed at IPB and, on the same campus, support for the caliphate was first declared. The purpose of this chapter is not to challenge the characterization of Muslim youth in the literature, but primarily to contribute to our knowledge about the process of youth radicalization. Both quantitative and qualitative data suggest that we need to consider a broader conceptualization of the radicalization process, rather than confining it to a form of recruitment. My research findings support Quintan Wiktorowicz’s contention that, when exploring radical Islamic movement, we need to pay attention to the role of mobilizers in drawing individuals to the process of radicalization. For instance, how mobilizers were able to influence and convince individuals to do things that are not in their own interests, such as participation in high-risk behavior that could lead to arrest or death, as well as how mobilizers capitalize or create “cognitive openings,” defined as periods in which individuals are willing to question their own previously held personal beliefs and consider new radical ideas. Most of the informants surveyed and interviewed were converted to radical ideologies through friendship and mentorship. Although the techniques used by Islamist militants to influence people to adopt their point of view are not denied, youth involvement in radical social networks seems to be a dominant driving force in the pathway to radicalization.

Radicalization is a process involving choices that influence the way of thinking among educated youth. As discussed earlier, conversion is a complex phenomenon. From a sociological perspective, it is important to understand the various factors involved before and after radicalization. Based on my research, it is apparent that not all students at the seven state universities acknowledged that their daily behaviour and activities changed after they had exposure to radical ideology. In fact, in this study’s findings, a significant number of students did not change their internal beliefs after exposure to radical information. Because of their embarrassment around newfound mentors, some students chose to act more radical than they really were. For instance, they did not want to be seen as immoral and secular individuals, and thus they chose to take on the appearance of being radical. Interviews with a student from UB revealed that one of the instruments often used by radical groups to convince students of the relevance of the caliphate was the phrase “shaking off sinfulness.” This means that as students and educated youth, it was hoped that they would not merely live a lifestyle of consumerism and worldliness, but instead would embrace the calling of the community of faith to take on the religious struggle in which they believe.

A number of interviewed students acknowledged that when they gathered together with those categorized as radical, the new students were pressured to adapt and adjust, which they did so that they would not be rebuked or viewed negatively by the group. The easiest thing for students to do when they were involved with radical groups was to embrace physical changes, such as changing their clothing to match their mentors. The students acknowledged that this most elementary adjustment in the change of their clothing and appearance became a part of their daily life. As they became more involved with radical groups, female students would normally change the type of head-covering they would use, in accordance with Islamic law, and would no longer wear trousers (particularly jeans). Male students would begin to wear long-sleeved shirts, grow their beards, and often become involved in activities at the mosque as well as religious campus activities. The physical appearance of these groups was usually marked by conservative religious clothing. However, this indicator of radicalized youth can be deceiving because they often did not embrace radical ideologies wholeheartedly.

Many radicalized students acknowledged a feeling of shame if they rejected the invitations of their senior students and friends to join their religious study groups. However, as revealed in the interviews, many students who were involved with radical study groups did not exhibit a wholehearted commitment. As the newer students followed study activities, it was clear that their involvement was not because of a religious need or a deepened belief but was more closely related to the need to socialize and build a broader network of relationships. A significant number of students joined radical networks simply because they did not want to have a difference of opinion with their seniors, and therefore felt obligated to be involved when senior students invited them. Those students who appeared radical, when observed more closely, were not necessarily radical in their personal beliefs.

(excerpted from chapter 4)

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