Indonesia’s problem with youth radicalisation

Outdated teaching techniques and government inaction leave Indonesia’s youth vulnerable to radicalisation. NGOs are doing all they can but cannot protect the nation’s youth on their own.


The Indonesian population is blessed with a demographic bonus. Indonesia’s young population outnumbers its old. In the 2020s, the country’s working population will outnumber its dependent population.

This demographic dividend should be a blessing. But Indonesia’s youth are under threat. Youth radicalisation threatens to turn this blessing into a curse. Indonesian schools and universities are targets for conservative religious ideology. The country’s young population is becoming weaponised.

Indonesian students are under threat

A concerning number of Indonesian young people have been introduced to radical ideology. An estimated 39% of university students have been exposed to radical groups. 15 provinces now have a “high risk” classification. Their students are optimal targets for radical groups.

A similar story is occurring in Indonesian high schools. Almost 60% of extracurricular Islamic studies pupils are willing to wage violent jihad. Dangerous radical elements in society are poisoning Indonesia’s young minds.

Students are prime targets for radicalisation

The teaching methods in Indonesian schools leaves students vulnerable to radicalisation. An emphasis on memorisation leaves students without critical-thinking skills.

Raw memorisation requires no thought. It does not equip Indonesia’s children with the tools to resist radical ideology. Critical thought and the ability to challenge arguments are essential for preventing radicalisation. But Indonesian students are taught to accept facts without question. This makes them prime targets for radical groups.

NGOs are forced to fill in the gaps

With the education system failing young Indonesians, NGOs are filling in the gaps. They carry out the bulk of youth radicalisation prevention programs.

The Wahid Foundation, for example, visits high schools at high risk of radicalisation. Its representatives hold lessons on topics such as peace, tolerance, multiculturalism and pluralism. Rather than memorising facts, teachers conduct lessons as discussions. This student-centric approach aims to increase student engagement and foster critical thought processes.

The Jakarta-based Maarif Institute runs an annual youth camp to combat youth radicalisation. The organisation invites 100 high school students to attend from across Indonesia. The students participate in interactive lessons and go on excursions. The excursions include visits to Catholic churches and Buddhist temples.

NGOs are fighting extremism on the battlegrounds it thrives in

NGOs are engaging in a battle of ideas by promoting critical thought and tolerance. They are also going toe-to-toe with extremist propaganda online.

In collaboration with Google, Maarif hosts workshops designed to counter harmful online propaganda. At its workshops, the Maarif Institute encourages participants to make short films. These clips celebrate diversity and equality. They often use comedy and drama to harbour discussion. Participants put them on YouTube and share them across social media. They provide an effective counternarrative to extremist propaganda.

Government involvement is limited

The NGOs combatting extremism are doing so without help from the government. The government has ploughed funding into its Detachment 88 Unit. However, it has been markedly absent from efforts to prevent youth radicalisation.

The Rohani Islam movement surged in the late nineties, following the fall of Suharto. It promoted Islamic teaching to young people through after-school classes. Rohani activists have become more radical than other population segments. 40% of participants supported Indonesia becoming an Islamic State under a caliphate. The Rohani Islam movement falls under the control of the Ministry for Education. But there have been no efforts to investigate or reform Rohani Islam.

Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) is also attempting to radicalise Indonesian children. The organisation aligns itself with ISIS. The family of suicide bombers that carried out recent attacks had links with JAD. JAD runs unregistered boarding schools and study groups for children. Here, they train children to use air guns. Students and teachers from JAD schools have also travelled to Syria for training.

Government-funded social work programs could help

The government could do more to disrupt these radicalising influences. Since January 2017, Turkish authorities have returned 220 Indonesians. They were all trying to reach Iraq and Syria from Turkey to join ISIS. After one-month in a detention facility, they returned to their communities. Many disappeared shortly afterwards.

The reintegration program currently runs off-budget. The program’s social workers are inexperienced. They cannot adequately monitor and engage with suspects. These suspects have valuable information on how radical groups indoctrinate young people.

Indonesia needs an allocated budget from the Ministry of Social Affairs (Kemensos) for surveillance and deradicalization. With this budget, Kemensos could hire experienced social workers. These social workers could help reintegration by engaging returning young people. These young people could yield information on radicalisation methods. At the very least, it would identify potential threats to national stability. It could also lead to the discovery of unregistered JAD schools.

Departments of highly-trained social workers could also monitor families homeschooling children. It would ensure those not in mainstream education are not subject to indoctrination.

Indonesia needs constructive engagement with the country’s youth to prevent radicalisation. Young people deserve an education that provides the tools to resist radical thought. They deserve a comprehensive social service that offers support. Those outside mainstream education deserve safeguards to protect against their indoctrination.

NGOs are doing all they can do without the government. Their counternarrative plants the seeds of tolerance. But without government assistance, the seeds cannot germinate. Left unchecked, extremist ideology will burrow into the psyche of Indonesia’s youth. Its intolerant ideology will bring Indonesia a future of violent extremism.