Are Islamic schools in Indonesia educating for or against religious extremism?

In an effort to counter religious extremism in Indonesia and Australia, it is critical to understand how and in what ways formal schooling influences the radicalisation process and contributes to the development of extremist worldviews. Accordingly, this project sought to explore the crucial role of Indonesian Islamic school principals. Formal education that counters extremist thought and behavior most commonly centres on the teaching of civic values, citizenship, democracy, and tolerance. Yet imparting these values in schools does not necessarily mean that students have the ability to recognise radical or extremist propaganda. Schools may, through their systems of practice or curricula, unknowingly support or advance extremism.

The purpose of this research was to better understand how the role of Indonesian Islamic school principals may mitigate or augment radicalisation processes leading to religious extremism. This project sought to better understand specific components of school leadership to identify how school leaders promote or mitigate extremist thought.

In addition, this research sought to identify actions school principals can take that may impede the development of extremist belief systems through the development of a ‘Leading Against Extremism Framework’ that is applicable to the Central Java context. This framework can be retested in other areas in Indonesia and expanded to Australia in order to ascertain the influence culture may have on the development of religious extremism in educational settings.

The project was a qualitative case study of 20 Islamic private schools in central Java. We used three data collection techniques: semi-structured individual interviews, school site observations, and document analysis.

Findings and recommendations

After analysis of the data through open coding, the findings identified similarities and differences between mainstream and networked private Islamic schools. Islamic schools were similar in the following aspects: flow of authority; approach to punishment; use of direct instruction; expectation of rote memorization; infrastructure; and, policy environment.

Islamic schools differed via the following aspects: openness; integration between schools, communities, and society; interpretation of identity; and, view of diversity.

From these findings, we developed an Indonesia Islamic Education Continuum where we located aggregate mainstream Islamic and networked schools on continuums in terms of openness, integration, identity, and diversity. From these aggregate profiles, we identified an ‘extremism gap’ that shows disparities in leadership between mainstream Islamic schools versus network schools, which may influence potential drivers of radicalisation.

Mainstream school leaders supported schools that were more open and integrated. They hired teachers from various backgrounds and understood that people can have multiple identities alongside their Muslim identity.

Network Islamic school leaders led schools that were typically closed and segregated from community and society. They led schools that taught that the idea of having a pure ‘Muslim’ identity (as defined by the school) was essential to their life as Muslims.

They also led schools that taught students to see diversity as ‘the other’, different, not part of their group, and not following the proper religious path.

Several recommendations came out of the study for school leadership, for Indonesian Islamic schools, and to address issues of extremism in schools.

For school leadership:

  • Pre-service preparation programs need to influence school leaders to value open schools that are integrated, support mixed identities of teachers and students, and teach the importance of what is commonly held by all members of their community, society, Indonesia, and the world.
  • School leaders need to connect their schools to local, national, and global communities.
  • School leaders need to lead schools via shared decision-making processes.
  • School leaders need to build links across mainstream and network schools.

For Indonesian Islamic schools:

  • Integrate critical thinking skills into the curricula rather than emphasizing rote memorization.
  • Promote the adoption of ‘Indonesian Muslim identity’, along with supporting the notion of individuals having mixed identities.
  • Develop inter/intrafaith activities.
  • Create proactive redundancies throughout the system to address issues of openness, integration, identity, and diversity.

To address issues of extremism:

  • Clear need for larger and broader studies to allow us to deepen and refine our understanding of the extremism gap.
  • Develop and implement a survey to pilot an ‘extremism gap’ research instrument.
  • Continue this study in other sectors.
  • Uncover promising strategies school leaders are currently using.
  • Collaborate with educational stakeholders to lead workshops on topics related to issues of extremism and education.



Journal Articles

Brooks, M.C., Brooks, J.S., Mutohar, A., & Taufieq, Imam. (in development). ‘Islamic school leadership in Indonesia: Exploring the gap between moderation and extremism’.

Fully refereed conference proceedings

Brooks, J., Melanie, B., Mutohar, A., Taufieq, I., & Abdullah., I (2017, November). ‘Exploring Religious Extremism in Indonesian Islamic Schools’. Paper presented at Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Conference 2017.


Professor Jeffrey Brooks presented topics on conducting qualitative analysis, introduction to the research study, and key issues in data collection.

In the research dissemination, Dr. Melanie Brooks presented the research findings in a session attended by 20 Islamic school leaders and 15 Islamic education lecturers. The session was followed by a discussion on how to counter extremism issues in Islamic schools.

Public Seminar, Monash University, 15 November 2018.


The Conversation: Mutohar, A. (2018). ‘Countering the rise of radicalism in private Islamic schools in Indonesia’, The Conversation; 17 May 

ABC: Kesenjangan Sekolah Islam Bisa Picu Ekstrimisme

Suaramerdeka: Radikalisme Muncul dari Pendidikan Ekstrem