Research student ventures into the heart of Islam 

CDU research student Nathan Franklin's political studies will take him on a journey into the heart of Islam next year

Charles Darwin University research student Nathan Franklin’s political studies will take him on a journey into the heart of Islam next year.

The 23-year-old political science student whose honours thesis was on Schapelle Corby will spend up to eight months living in an Indonesian pesantren, an Islamic boarding school for students aged from 12 to 18.

Nathan will spend three or four months at two quite different pesantren, both of them in Lamongan, about two hours journey from Surabaya in East Java.

One of the schools has a boarding population of about 8000 students, while the other has an enrolment of about 2500 – with the mix of the sexes roughly half and half in each school.

He will spend his time in the role of ‘participant observer’ – rising with the students at 4am when they begin the first of their prayer sessions throughout the day.

He will be allowed to observe how both boys and girls receive their education in the Koran and the Indonesian school curriculum, and will repay the hospitality by teaching English to the students.

His observations of life in the pesantren will give him insights into the growing influence of the Islamic boarding schools on Indonesian education and politics as part of his research studies for his Doctor of Philosophy focusing on Pesantren, Local Community and Political Islam in Eastern Java.

Pesantren have received adverse publicity in the West in the post-September era after the media identified some of them as training grounds for terrorists. In the Middle East and Pakistan the Islamic boarding schools are more commonly known by the name Madrasah.

However, Nathan says that most of the pesantren are peaceful, tolerant and conservative places that have been unfairly tagged as the incubators of terrorism.

‘There are about 16,000 pesantren in Indonesia but only about four of them have ever been identified as giving training linked to acts of terrorism,’ he said.

The town of Lamongan where he will stay, however, is not far the village where Bali terrorist bomber Amrosi grew up.

He begins his boarding school life in early December, 2006, staying at first at an 8000-enrolment school run by the moderate Islamic organisation known as Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s biggest Islamic organisation with a membership of about 40-million adherents, most of them in remote and rural areas.

He will then swap its crowded corridors for a 2500-student school run by the Muhammadiyah, a reformist organisation that wants to take Islam back to its ‘golden age’ roots along the lines of Shariah based values. Muhammadiyah is also a large Islamic organisation with about 30 million members.

‘There is an ongoing debate where some of those in the Muhammadiyah organisation want Indonesian society to become a caliphate, or a religious state,’ says Nathan. ‘But both types of schools renounce terrorism.’

He says pesantren have become more popular in recent times since the Indonesian education system recognised their curriculum.

‘They are popular with parents because they offer a high level of discipline, they are cheaper than state schools, and students receive a good education as well as becoming inculcated with Islamic religious values,’ says Nathan.

Born and raised in Darwin, Nathan first visited Indonesia on a school excursion with Dripstone high school in Year 10. Two years later he spent a semester as an exchange student in the highlands of Bali.

His Bachelor of Arts honors thesis at Charles Darwin University was based on the reaction of the Indonesian print media to the Schapelle Corby case.

‘The media’s attitude was that she was guilty from the outset,’ he says. ‘They are strong in their belief that much of society’s problems stem from drugs, so they were very judgmental about her.’

For his PhD Nathan seeks to examine the extent to which pesantren and its leaders are influencing politics in Indonesia since the transition from the authoritarian regime of President Suharto to a democracy. He says Australia must understand the internal dynamics of this important regional neighbour.

‘A contemporary study of this nature is vital to achieving better relations with Indonesia,’ he says.

Nathan leaves for Indonesia in early December, 2006 and plans to be away for a year. He also plans to interview politicians in Jakarta after his sojourns at the pesantren.