Aid to Indonesian Islamic schools helps undermine terrorism

Author: Risti Permani, University of Adelaide

Few might think that the Australian state of Queensland’s recent natural disasters could have any link with the future of underprivileged students in Indonesian Islamic schools (madrasah).

But the Australian opposition Liberal Party’s proposal to cut aid for madrasah to avoid the Australian PM’s flood levy to pay for flood damage has raised concerns over the effect of diverting support for those schools on Australia’s counter-terrorism agenda.

Foreign aid can be an effective tool in the war on terror through poverty reduction and education programs. Research on the economics of crime suggests that poverty and lack of education are correlated with illegal activities. Krueger and Maleckova (2003), for example, also suggest that terrorism should be perceived as a response to political conditions and long standing feelings of indignity and frustration although their investigation of different movements, including Hezbollah, also suggests that terrorists are recruited, in no small part, from groups with a relatively wealthy and educated family background.

In the history of terrorism in Indonesia, Noordin Mohammad Top and Azahari Husin (now deceased), allegedly involved in several bombings in Indonesia, were educated people with a Bachelor of Science and a PhD degree respectively. But they were the intellectuals — not representative of typical rank and file terrorist-related groups.

Ensuring that radical ideologies do not metastasise throughout the grass roots is thus an important part of counter-terrorism. And here, religious education is still education. It is about intellectual development and teaching students how to become responsible members of their community. In this respect, investing in religious education is similar to investing in ‘regular’ or secular education.

The socio-economic effects of Islamic education also have additional benefits. Madrasah have strength in reaching subgroups at risk of dropping out of school, such as school-aged married females and female students from poor families. In some rural areas madrasah are the only schools that are able to deliver basic education to students from low-income families. Australian support for Islamic schools is therefore strategic in terms of achieving income equality and the Millennium Development Goals in Indonesia.

This goodwill with Indonesia may also contribute to Australia’s own economic growth, given Indonesia’s position as one of its major trading partners. With its sizeable population and positive economic growth, trading with Indonesia promises a bright future. But this requires stable macroeconomic performance, and the country’s experience suggests this is closely related to political stability and the stabilising force of religious life.

Violence committed in the name of religion continues to occur. And while most Indonesians view such violence as an indication of the Indonesian government’s failure in protecting its citizens against radical acts and the direct link of aid to the resolution of extremist terrorism appears uncertain, Australian aid towards the development of madrasah may help to prevent the spread of radicalism in Indonesia.

Religion has always proven an effective mobiliser of people. Here, the role of religious leaders is evident. Religious leaders (kyai) of religious institutions, such as pesantren (Islamic traditional schools), contribute to the formation of social capital, particularly in the form of religiosity as well as improved welfare (forthcoming at Journal of Socio-Economics). Acknowledging the importance of Islamic organisations is therefore an essential step to engaging in Indonesia’s development.

Investment in education is a long-term investment, and the benefits are not immediately obvious. A reduction in the number of terrorist attacks is one important measure of success, but it is not the only nor is it a sufficient measure of the success of Australian aid. The perception of madrasah as breeding grounds for terrorism is a misconception; only a handful of alumni have a history of connections with terrorist organisations.

In Australia, it is also important to continuously promote an understanding of Islamic values. Islam is derived from the same root as the word ‘salaam’ (peace) and the first verse in its holy book, the Quran, is ‘Iqra’ (read), suggesting the high importance of being knowledgeable and contributing to humanity in peaceful way. Hence, any terror act which claims to be in the name of Islam is premised on a false interpretation of its believers. Assisting Islamic schools and working with religious leaders in delivering values that promote respect to others could be the most effective way to reduce such acts.

Risti Permani is a postdoctoral research fellow in economics at the University of Adelaide. Her PhD study is focused on the economics of Islamic education in Indonesia.