By Peter Harper
A parallel universe exists just 200 kilometres from Australia's shores. It's otherwise known as Indonesia. A remarkable event that you haven't heard about has just taken place there.
It was the subject of minute-by-minute, wall-to-wall TV coverage in Indonesia and the cause of great excitement, but it was near invisible in Australia's media.
Saudi king calls for Muslim unityKing Salman, on a 12-day state visit to Indonesia, says Muslims need to unite and fight against 'terrorism'.
King Salman travelled with seven ministers, 19 princes of the House of Saud, a total retinue of 1500 people and 460 tonnes of gear delivered by 27 cargo planes. It included tonnes of halal food, the most expensive car ever seen in Indonesia and other essentials such as two gold-coloured, portable escalators so the 81-year old monarch could descend effortlessly from his personal jet.
When he stopped over in Bali for some recreation after a stressful trip, his party booked out four five-star resorts. Ecstatic crowds greeted him wherever he travelled in Indonesia.
"The sheer extravagance completely awestruck his Indonesian audiences," reports ANU Indonesia expert Greg Fealy, who was in Jakarta. "All this stuff to show that expense was no object."
AdvertisementThe visit had the desired effect. It so dazzled Indonesians that the country was struck by "a sudden amnesia", according to Fealy. All grudges, tensions and complaints seemed to be forgotten. "There was almost no critical commentary" in the Indonesian media, he reports.
The king is the custodian of the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina, the places that devout Muslims hope to visit on pilgrimage before they die. And Indonesia, of course, is the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation
Indonesia's President was happy to romanticise the visit, completely overlooking the contrast between Indonesia, one of the world's greatest democratic success stories, and Saudi, one of the most notorious autocracies, family self-indulgence masquerading as a nation state.
"We have special ties with Saudi Arabia," said Joko Widodo, known universally as Jokowi, "united by Islam and brotherhood." Except that the countries' differences over Islam may be almost as great as their commonality.
Indonesia's state ideology of pancasila specifically guarantees religious pluralism. Its traditional form of worship is relaxed and tolerant. Indonesian Islam is redolent with "all the flavours it had picked up while stewing for centuries in the rich cultures of the islands," as journalist Elizabeth Pisani puts it.
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is the very definition of religious intolerance. Muslims who renounce Islam are executed. Its Salafist-Wahhabist official religion is a "brand of ultraconservative Islam [that] is nearly identical to that of the Islamic State," says William McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse.
The two are so similar that when the so-called Islamic State was looking for textbooks for schoolchildren in Syria, it printed copies of official Saudi textbooks it found online.
The barbaric punishments that Daesh hands out are the same as Saudi Arabia's religious penalties – death for homosexual acts, death by stoning for adultery, amputation of a hand for stealing, and so on.
And the Saudis think it's so good that they're busy exporting their religious ideology.
Professor Brahma Chellany of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi estimates that since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia has spent over $US200 billion ($266 billion) on "its global jihad project, including funding Wahhabi madrassas [Islamic schools], mosques, clerics and books.
Indonesia is one of the prime targets for the Saudi missionary project: "Wahhabist money going into Indonesia is one of the things that has started to undercut the traditional accommodating and syncretist view of Islam in Indonesia," says Allan Gyngell, former head of Australia's peak intelligence body, the Office of National Assessments, and former head of the Lowy Institute.
"In fact, it's been a far more dangerous trend, I think, than some of the things that have received more publicity, like some of the extremist groups such as al-Qaeda."
How? "These groups are very important in their own right, but the money going into the madrassas has been undercutting the foundation of Indonesian Islam, helping to reshape the conventional approaches to Islam in Indonesia. Young people won't turn out extremist, but they will have a more puritanical, less accommodating view of Islam. It is undermining pancasila, the thing that, from the beginning, has kept Indonesia together and been profoundly beneficial to Australia."
King Salman announced $US1 billion in social aid for Indonesia, including money for schools, and a $US6 billion injection into Indonesia's state-owned oil firm. He announced unlimited flights between the two countries. His most popular gift, however, was an extra 50,000 places a year for Indonesian pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca and Medina.
The Saudis have been pressing for the tripling of the size of their Wahhabist university in Indonesia, which offers free tuition, and it is expected that Jakarta, reluctantly, will agree.
In the face of the Saudis' relentless, pernicious proselytising, what has Australia done? Cut its aid funding for Indonesian schools and more than halved the number of scholarships it offers to Indonesians to study in Australia.
Canberra needs to do a lot more than just revisit these cuts. Together with like-minded nations, it should work with the Indonesian government and institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to put together a long-term program to help Jakarta fund quality schools and universities.
That would be a golden escalator that would actually do some good for Indonesia so that it doesn't need to depend on Saudi money and the fundamentalist Islam that comes with it.
If this sounds a bit ambitious, like the postwar Marshall Plan that rebuilt a shattered Europe, it should be.
Indonesia is one of the Islamic world's greatest success stories. To leave its future to the influence of Riyadh would put our biggest neighbour in the hands of one of the Islamic world's most dangerous dead-ends.
Peter Harper is international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Newspaper