For decades Wahhabism, the strict strain of Islam that promotes a literal interpretation of the Quran, has been Saudi Arabia’s predominant faith, and since the 1970s the oil-rich kingdom has been generous in sending funds to other Muslim countries to promote this conservative version of Islam.
Now that Wahhabism has been linked with radicalism and even terrorism, the Saudi government has stepped up its campaign to counter that perception and the state visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Indonesia, where religious conservatism has gained ground alongside frequent terrorist attacks, was part of the public relations campaign. After dealing with business on the first day of his visit, King Salman on Thursday kicked off his charm offensive in a speech during a 30-minute special session at the House of Representatives, calling for a united front to deal with what he termed “a clash of civilizations” and terrorism.
“The challenges that the Muslim community and the world in general faces, like terrorism and the clash of civilizations and the lack of respect for a country’s sovereignty, require us to unite in dealing with these challenges,” the monarch said in his two-minute speech, which was interrupted by rounds of applause from members of the House and guests, including former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and former vice president Try Sutrisno.
Later in his meetings with leaders of the country’s major Islamic organizations, the octogenarian king promoted a tolerant version of Islam as the key in the fight against terrorism and radicalism.
Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifudin, who had organized the meeting, said Indonesia and Saudi Arabia agreed to promote a moderate version of Islam.
“The two countries have come to an understanding that we would prioritize the promotion of Islam as rahmatan lil alamin [blessing for the universe]. What is needed to maintain the stability of global civilization is the moderation of Islam,” said Lukman, who joined the 30-minute session at the State Palace on Wednesday. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo attended.
During the session, three Muslim scholars were given the chance to speak directly to the monarch, including Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) chairman Maruf Amin, who issued an edict last year calling for the prosecution of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahja Purnama for allegedly insulting the Quran.
Earlier on Wednesday, King Salman and President Jokowi witnessed the signing of 11 agreements, including one addressing the issue of transnational crimes and global extremism, radicalism and terrorism.
To further bolster its counterterrorism campaign, the Saudi government offered free haj trips for family members of personnel of the National Police’s counterterrorism squad Densus 88 who were killed while on duty.
To further burnish his credentials as a promoter of moderate Islam, King Salman is expected to hold an interfaith forum on Friday, shortly before departing for Brunei Darussalam.
Despite the visiting monarch’s pledge to join efforts to counter radicalism, the Saudi government continues to promote its conservative brand of Islam.
Saudi Arabia is likely to step up its campaign to spread its version of Islam as it plans to open new campuses of the Saudi-funded Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia (LIPIA) in Makassar, Surabaya and Medan.
Currently, LIPIA only has a campus in Jakarta.
Students studying at LIPIA will pay no tuition fees, as they receive Saudi-funded scholarships. Students will also receive a monthly stipend while studying at the institute.
The college is known for graduating students ingrained with the conservative strain of Islam, including convicted terrorist Aman Abdurrahman, who has been known for his efforts to spread Islamic State (IS) movement propaganda.
Alongside the Indonesian Society for the Propagation of Islam (DDII), LIPIA has been the primary beneficiary of Saudi funding in the country.
Human rights groups have expressed concerns that conservative clerics in the country are promoting an agenda that conforms with the ideals of Wahabbism, including the call for the persecution of minority Muslim groups like Shiites and Ahmadiyah members.
In Malaysia, where the visiting Saudi monarch agreed to invest US$7 billion in an oil refinery, the daughter of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, Marina Mohamad, lashed out against what she called Arab colonialism.