Chapter 1. The Emergence of the New Santri in Indonesia

Table of Contents

A. Old and New Santri
B. Factors behind the Emergence of New Santri
1. Repression and the Failure of Political Islam
2. The Impact of Religious Education
3. International influences
C. Variants, Characteristics and Groupings
1. Convergent Santri (1970s)
2. Radical Santri (1980s)
3. Global Santri (1990s)

To an extent never seen before, following the collapse of the Soeharto regime in 1998 Islamist groups in Indonesia began to express themselves vocally and explicitly. Islamic discourse has developed apace, ranging from demands that the state lift the ban on the role of Islamic ideology in political parties and mass organizations to accommodate Muslim interests up to calls for the implementation of Islamic shariah to replace the laws of the state. As well, the issue of a global Islamic state, the khilafah, once not of great interest, has now been promoted by a section of Indonesian Muslims. There is also growing impetus within political Islam to review the significance of cultural Islam in Indonesia. The agenda of Islamisation no longer rests only on the intellectual and cultural aspects of Islam. Islam needs to play a greater role in Indonesian politics.

These recent phenomena indicate the emergence of a new type of devout Muslim, the santri, differing from their parents in terms of political orientation, religious ideology and in their attitude towards inherited traditions. The new santri are not only influenced by the local and changing dynamics of Indonesian politics, society and culture but they are also subject to international influences in Islam. Within Indonesia, some of them retain their links with traditionalist or modernist groups, some keep their distance from them and yet others show radical orientations. They have become very influential within certain sections of Indonesian society and have gained attention from many observers and researchers.

This chapter analyses the early development of the new santri during the time of the consolidation of Soeharto’s New Order up until its collapse in 1998. We introduce three types of new santri: convergent, radical and global. While these are not rigid classifications, the three variants can be explained by affiliation with different groupings within Indonesian Islam. Santri described as “convergent” are both traditionalist and modernist activists who tend to merge with each other. The “radical” santri are usually pessimistic about the traditionalist and modernist struggles in Islam and demand radical change in Indonesia. The “global” santri are more influenced by trans-national movements in the Middle East, yet still form part of both traditionalist and modernist groupings at home. Our approach is based on an analysis of the doctrinal origins and the religious agendas of these contemporary santri in order to better understand the emergence of the Jemaah Tarbiyah. The activists of PKS are mainly drawn from members of Jemaah Tarbiyah, who fall into the category of global santri.

A. Old and New Santri

Generally speaking, in the past, the term santri was used by scholars of Indonesian Islam, such as Geertz[1] and Koentjaraningrat[2] to refer to observant Muslims; they might have come from either a traditionalist or a modernist background. Indonesian Muslims were first divided theoretically between nominal Muslims and the devout. The latter, the santri, were likely to be affiliated with Islamic parties, while nominal Muslims were known by their connection with the secular factions of politics. In this regard, being santri was to support political Islam in which the Islamic political parties were perceived to be the only valid means of struggle for Muslim interests. However, the divisions of Muslims in terms of political and religious orientation were sharply distinctive - not only between the nominal and the devout but also among kinds of Muslims themselves.

By contrast, since the beginning of the New Order in 1966, and in part after the failure of the Islamic political parties to win benefits for Muslims (which resulted in critical relations between the regime and Muslim political activists in general) the influence of religious and political streams on the new generation of Muslims declined. In this era, many younger Muslims tended to disengage from political activities and were little concerned with traditionalist or modernist connections. They showed a capacity to integrate the two once opposite poles while remaining devout; they simply sought different ways to promote Islam in the society and the state.

An identification of the santri in Indonesia was made through the useful work of the anthropologist, Clifford Geertz. In his study of the religious life in the town of “Mojokuto", East Java, during the 1950s, Geertz classified the Javanese into three variants, priyayi, santri and abangan. Although his work has drawn criticism from many scholars, the santri-abangan dichotomy is still important for an understanding of the religious and political orientations of Muslims in Indonesia. Santri, or observant Muslims are further divided into two groups, kolot (traditionalist) and moderen (modernist).[3] The former, following Geertz, accommodated local practices and rituals in their Islam and affiliated politically with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) whilst the latter were determined to purify Islamic teachings from local syncretic practices and preferred to join Masyumi.[4]

About twenty years later, another distinction between traditionalist and modernist was made by Allan A. Samson. He described them as politically accommodationist or reformist in nature. Samson then added a further type of santri, which he named “radical fundamentalist”. This new category is indeed helpful for our understanding of the reality of santri in Indonesia, in addition to the two already acknowledged variants.[5] The fundamentalist element of santri was attributed to the Darul Islam movement of the 1950s, which launched a rebellion against the new Indonesian state, aiming to establish an Indonesia Islamic State.[6] The continuation of fundamentalist groups from the past, as classified by Samson, bears a correlation to radical groups of the present which has contributed to violent actions. In this thesis we call this category of santri, “radical” santri.

However, merely relying on the received insights of Geertz, Samson and other scholars will not provide us with a satisfactory picture of the recent face of Islam in Indonesia. Various events have taken place since the New Order period, which have changed the face of the old santri; a new concept, which I present in this thesis, is needed to explain these recent developments.

The new santri do not represent one single phenomenon. The generation of Muslims of the 1970s tended to combine traditionalist and modernist features, while the subsequent generation of the 1980s and the 1990s took different directions. This generation expressed their disillusionment towards both traditionalist and modernist heritages and began to search for an alternative religious expression. They took their religious references, either from existing radical groups in Indonesia, such as the Darul Islam just mentioned, or from global movements, such as Ikhwanul Muslimin, Salafi and Hizbut Tahrir.

In order to explain this emerging phenomenon, the three variants of the new santri will be employed. With no intention of neglecting other prominent factors, such as the emergence of liberal movements, my categorization is intended to explore the features of political Islam in Indonesia. The views of the three new types of santri on the relation of Islam to the state and their practical strategies in implementing their ideas will be analysed. In general, the emergence of new santri since the beginning of regime consolidation in 1966 is the result of both local and international dynamics.




[1] See Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (New York: the Free Press, 1960).

[2] See Koentjaraningrat, Javanese Culture (Singapore: Oxford University, 1985).

[3] Geertz, The Religion of Java, 129.

[4] Ibid.,148-176

[5] Allan S. Samson, “Army and Islam in Indonesia,” Pacific Affairs 44 no. 4 (Winter 1971-1972), 549.

[6] Ibid.