Education and extremism in Indonesia: Building a more tolerant future through schools

“It’s really about getting down to the roots of  why certain people are segregating themselves from society.”

While Indonesia has a history of religious acceptance, intolerance linked to conservative Islam appears to be on the rise. Educational institutions play a crucial role in advocating for social cohesion and harmony over radicalism among young people, and so researchers from The Australia-Indonesia Centre set out to further examine the link between education and extremism.

There is little research exploring how religious schooling affects extremist thought and behaviour, and no existing research on radical extremism in the Indonesian Islamic education sector. AIC lead researchers Dr Melanie Brooks and Professor Irwan Abdullah sought to fill this gap with their project, which explores the role of school leaders in mitigating or advancing religious extremism in Islamic Indonesian schools.

Indonesian Islamic education is by no means a monolith, and so there are nuances in approaches to leadership in education. According to researcher Professor Jeffrey Brooks, this research showed that while there is a lot of “outstanding” education happening in Indonesia along with excellent school leadership, there is also a real diversity between schools in terms of approaches to leadership, quality of education and Islamic influence. “We could see a need to establish better networks for sharing positive strategies”, he said, in order to overcome existing issues within the patchwork of approaches to education.

Research team member Agus Mutohar speaking at the AIC Attitudes Seminar, with lead researcher Dr Melanie Brooks alongside him. A link to Agus’s article on the study in The Conversation is at the foot of this article. (Credit: AIC)

Building bridges of engagement and connection not just between schools, but with the wider community in general, was identified as a critical factor in mitigating extremism in schools. As part of the study, the researchers saw that more inward-facing or insular schools failed to expose students to members of the community that may be different to them. Dr Melanie Brooks said that in order to promote tolerance in religious education, leaders must see the value of diversity and what it can bring to a school community. Advocating for a singular ideology “can breed harmful effects to society [such as] asocial type behaviour”, so opening the school environment to the wider community can be a powerful step towards preventing religious extremism in students.

Researchers and guests at the AIC Attitudes Seminar in November 2018. (Credit: AIC)

Another factor to consider was that of critical thinking – does the school promote open debate? Does the school encourage different perspectives that may emerge through thinking critically? “More insular Islamic schools are not allowing students to ask questions, but instead providing them [with] one simple answer, one sort of ideology, one set of rules… we see this as harmful to the world’s future of interconnectedness,” said Dr Melanie Brooks. With such a future in mind, it’s now more important than ever to recognise the values of openness and diversity in order to promote greater social cohesion not just in Indonesia, but globally.

Professor Brooks highlighted that “this isn’t just an issue with Islam; [it’s] an issue with Christianity, with political groups”, indicating that there’s potential for an expansion of this research into other forms of religious education in different locations across the world.

“One thing we see is that there is a need to do this kind of research in a variety of different contexts… so it could be really big.”

Read more about the study findings in this article for The Conversation Indonesia by researcher Agus Mutohar, and more on the study’s framing here.

This project forms part of The Australia-Indonesia Centre’s insights research, which among other things aims to produce recommendations which can lead to an improved future for both nations, together.