By Krithika Varagur for VOA News
The relaxed, if slightly seedy, Indonesian resort island of Batam, known for cheap massages, golf, and duty-free liquor, has become a hotspot for Southeast Asian Salafis, who practice a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam with roots in Saudi Arabia.
Due mostly to its strategic location near Singapore and Malaysia, Batam has become a crossroads for Salafi adherents in the region, and its institutions point to a flourishing network that crosses national borders.
The center of Batam’s Salafi scene is Hang Radio, which was an ordinary music station until 2004, when its owner, the businessman Zein Alatas, suddenly converted both himself and the network to Salafism. If Hang is the slick public face of Salafi Batam, the enterprising Salafi pesantren, or Islamic boarding schools that have popped up across the island, can be considered its private, grassroots core.
The presence of both kinds of Salafi establishments make Batam a microcosm of Southeast Asian Salafism, which is developing a discrete identity a continent away from its origins in the Arabian desert.
From 4:00 AM to midnight every day, Hang Radio FM plays sermons, lectures, and Quran recitations — but no music. Those who work at Hang officially refer to its content as dakwah, or Islamic preaching.
“This has nothing to do with Salafism” said Jamhur Poti, a business consultant for the station, speaking at its headquarters in a Batam mall. “Dakwah, education, business, health, yes. Not Salafism.”
“Yeah, they can say whatever they want,” said Din Wahid, a researcher at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta. “But Hang Radio is truly Salafi. This is clear from the content of the programs that they broadcast.”
Preachers on the network rail against bid’a, or innovation that deviates from the Islamic of Koranic times, like celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday or visiting tombs. Others vilify non-Sunni sects like Shia and Ahmadiyya.
Hang Radio’s speakers hail from Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, plus visiting scholars from the Middle East, which Wahid said points to the interconnectedness of Southeast Asian Salafis. Poti said their listeners now hail from as far away as Hong Kong and Australia, thanks to digital streaming on its website.
Last year, Hang Radio was implicated in an extremism scandal when two “self-radicalized” Singaporeans cited the station as a source of their jihadist sympathies. The two men were detained before they could travel to the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Hang Radio received a warning letter from the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) and promised to stop airing sermons from intolerant or hardline preachers.
“Hang Radio is no longer an issue, they have totally changed their problematic content after the warning they received,” said Zulkifli Aka, the Batam head of Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Ministry.
“We did not change a thing after the Singapore incident,” Poti told me later. “We have never supported jihadism or terrorism, so there was nothing to ‘fix.'”
Despite its hardline content, Hang Radio represents a Salafism that voluntarily integrates into Indonesia’s political framework. Poti used to work at KPI himself, the station maintains relations with Zulkifli and KPI, and it even hosted the chief of Indonesian Police last month.
But whereas some Salafis take this evangelical stance, other communities turn inward, cultivating their ideology at a remove from ordinary civic life. This phenomenon is evident in the Batam neighborhood of Cendana, home to Pesantren Anshur al-Sunnah.
Although the neighborhood is just a 15 minute drive from downtown Batam, where travelers in Western clothes convene at seaside bars blaring house tracks, Cendana is conspicuously quiet — Salafis frown on music— and nearly every girl and woman wears a black burqa or niqab.
Wildan, an Indonesian man from Aceh, started the pesantren in 2004 after five years studying at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia on a scholarship. There are 150 students, most of whom live on campus, and they come from all over Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Many Salafi families seek out likeminded pesantren on the Internet. The small campus is neatly split between men’s and women’s spaces, and the girls congregate in slightly more worn-down classrooms that are farther from the street.
Al-Sunnah’s curriculum has a heavy focus on Arabic, Quran and hadith, and theology. Several of its textbooks are imported from Saudi Arabia, according to Wildan’s wife. Zulkifli said the Religious Affairs Ministry vets all pesantren, and that they must uphold Pancasila, Indonesia’s state philosophy that protects religious tolerance.
Southeast Asian Salafism
“Batam’s Salafis are a good example of its growing transnational network,” said Wahid. Hang Radio preachers lecture to migrant workers in Singapore, Wildan of Pesantren Anshur Al-Sunnah lectures in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, and Reihan of Imam Syafi’i occasionally speaks on Hang Radio about adaab, or conduct.
Despite the potential tensions between Batam’s vacation economy and rising numbers of Salafis, Zulkifli, for one, was not concerned.
“Sure, they are not tolerant, but… so what?” he said. “As of now, the Salafi movement is under control. We don’t consider it to be a problem. Everyone is free to express themselves.”
But some observers disagree about the impact of Salafism in Batam, and in Indonesia. Extremism is on the rise on the tiny island — just in 2016, the Batam Immigration Office rejected 418 passport applications from people suspected of intent to join the so-called Islamic State.
“The impact of Salafism is clearly seen in heightening the Islamism that has taken place since the fall of Soeharto,” said Sunaworto Dema, a professor at UIN Yogyakarta.”The power of Salafi radio’s message lies in its targeted audience: secular university students and middle class society with no religious education. Local religious traditions, condemned as bid’a, are now severely challenged.”