With intolerance on the rise in Indonesia, Islamic boarding schools, known as pesantrens , are proving fertile ground not only for the spreading of radicalism, but also for efforts to counter it.
Search for Common Ground, an international NGO that aims to foster better conflict-resolution, started a program last year that fosters messages of peace and tolerance from the hearts of pesantren students.
“This program is a peace campaign, an education in tolerance and differences that is aimed at pesantren students,” Search for Common Ground program officer Suraji told the Jakarta Globe.
Suraji, a pesantren graduate himself, is aware of how Islamic schools are in the spotlight as suspected breeding grounds for terrorism. He referred to the “accidental” explosion that rocked Umar bin Khattab Islamic Boarding School in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara, last year.
Also recently revealed was a network of schools linked to radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is serving a 15-year jail sentence for funding a terrorist group that was planning attacks against Westerners and political leaders.
Bashir ran the Al Mukmin pesantren in Ngruki, Central Java, which was said to be a recruiting ground for would-be suicide bombers and militants.
Among the school’s graduates were Amrozi, Ali Imron and Ali Ghufron who played vital roles in the 2002 Bali bombings. Amrozi and Ali Ghufron were executed in 2008. Ali Imron is now serving life in prison.
“Indonesia has more than 20,000 pesantrens and should be seen as a strategic target for educating tolerance and peace. They should have a more active role in peace campaigns,” Suraji said.
Peace campaigners are turning to community radio to spread their message because it has the potential to reach most local residents.
“People are already familiar with radio broadcasts. In areas that are blindspots for television or print, community radio thrives,” said Adi Rumansyah of West Java Community Radio Network (JRK), a consultant for the program.
Adi said that community radio stations win easily over bigger radio stations when it comes to community ownership.
“It broadcasts local content, so local residents can send their greetings to each other,” Adi continued.
Pesantren community radio, he added, can strengthen social bonds since many people look up to local religious leaders. “Having a pesantren community radio opens a channel of interaction between pesantren and the people living around it,” Adi said.
And what better message to broadcast than one of peace and tolerance?
Partnering with the Wahid Institute, the Society for Pesantren and Community Development (P3M) and JRK, Search for Common Ground engaged 10 pesantrens, from Banten, Tangerang, Bogor, Tasikmalaya, Cirebon, Cilacap, Solo, Lamongan, Palembang and Makassar. The program started in September 2011 and will run until next year.
“Search for Common Ground provides them with the hardware and radio equipment. Then we invite several students and a tutor for a five-day training course in Jakarta to help them with the basics of how to run their own community radio station,” Suraji explained.
The training is not just on broadcasting and journalism, he added, but also on peaceful Islamic values.
“For the first two days we re-introduce them to the importance of tolerance and respecting differences, that Islam should be rahmatan-lil-alamin [blessing for all creation],” he said.
“We also chose pesantrens that are already familiar with the concept, but located in areas that are prone to conflicts,” he said when asked about their target group.
Surveys by rights groups revealed that West Java has the highest level of religious intolerance, followed by Central Java, Banten and South Sulawesi.
After the training, Search for Common Ground conducts quarterly monitoring of the 10 pesantrens, while seeking opportunities to engage more pesantrens in the program.
Nur Ridho, 31, a participant from Solo, said Central Java was home to many Islamic schools groups. “I am glad that our pesantren was chosen for this program,” he said. “I hope that this can help us spread the message of peace.”