Religious extremism: vulnerability and resistance among Indonesian migrant workers in Asia

By Yudha Dewanto  After turning 16, never having stepped a foot outside of her province, Katri pushed herself to go to Malaysia. Seeking a solution to family problems, seeing the new outfits, fancy gadgets and even leased cars of friends who migrated to Malaysia earlier, and feeling that her junior high school diploma would not be sufficient to get a local job, part of her was saying, “just go!” She went to Warsan, a rich tobacco farmer who often sponsored those willing to depart to Malaysia as domestic workers. Warsan did not just finance the departure, but also connected them to private recruiting companies in big cities like Semarang or Jakarta.[2] Katri heard that via Warsan’s networks, the departure fee would be free of charge and that using some “magic tricks,” Warsan could even change the age of those under 18, so that they could still make the journey. But for Katri, life in Malaysia turned out to be difficult. Although she made the journey to improve her life, once she arrived in Malaysia, she was overwhelmed by loneliness and struggling to adapt to a completely different working environment.

Katri’s story is representative of many Indonesian migrant workers in Asia. While we tend to assume that once migrant workers have adapted to their working environment their life becomes much easier, in fact they often end up struggling. Their struggle is often exacerbated by their reception in the host society. This is also illustrated by the case of Tyas and a hundred more of her co-workers. Working at a bird’s nests processing factory in Selangor, they were suddenly sent to jail in mid-2017 because they had been accused of entering Malaysia via a trafficking network. As later became clear, Tyas did enter through the procedural channel, and the practices behind the prosecution turned out to be discriminatory. Many migrants thus experience a state of precarity. In such a state, many of them become a vulnerable target group for the dissemination of radical ideas and ideologies.

The migrants deal with their state of precarity and living in multiple contexts in various ways. Helped by technological developments, in their daily lives they conflate their existence in multiple environments, mostly to survive in foreign lands (perantauan), and to transnationally re-experience the social field they were part of in their hometowns. This manifests itself in migrants’ involvement in hometown, religious, or ethnic-based associations. Indonesian migrant workers’ associations tend to organize in cultural or religious activities, such as tahlilan, an Islamic gathering to send prayers and reciting Qur’an for deceased family members. In this way, they tend to re-establish nostalgic moments. Together with Madurese migrants, for instance, I regularly attended tahlilan every Wednesday night and Thursday night, moving from one Madurese resident to another in Pantai Dalam, Kuala Lumpur.

But while these activities bring comfort to many migrants, these are also used as channels to spread radical values and ideologies. The learning process – or indoctrination – of these values takes place through religious teachings in the often religious gathering activities where migrants seek a short escape from their daily routine. This activity – and the risk of it – is already noted by the  Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC) in the case of Hong Kong, where such indoctrination has moved from a specific and covert venue to open spaces where migrant workers gather, such as the city’s Victoria Park.

Radical and vigilant groups not only try to influence the migrants through direct contact in the associations. Powered by the same technological advancement that facilitates the interconnectedness of transnational communities, such groups use the Internet in spreading their values. Many of the radicalization contents are available on Youtube or communities’ social media. In the documentary “Jihad Selfie” (2016), Noor Huda Ismail shows sympathizers of radical Islamic ideology who become voluntary fighters just because of the provocative yet fancy storyline communicating radicalized content.

During those activities vulnerable migrants who need a ‘break’ from the adaptation to their new work places are targeted, and many have difficulties filtering out negative influences that often come with radical values/ideologies. This happens in part because the religious messages also offer spiritual support by justifying people like Katri to leave their villages. Furthermore, most Indonesian migrant workers only have secondary education or less, and they are unaware of vigilantism under religious ideology.

The shifting function of migrant communities to spaces for indoctrination have also led to disappointment and friction among migrants who expect to use it as a place to ‘take a break.’ This is illustrated by the case of Anggani, an ex-domestic worker in Malaysia from Kepanjen Village in Banjarnegara, Central Java. On an Islamic learning forum where she was participating, she was physically threatened by one of the organisers. After several times attending the forum, the Ustadz or religious teacher offered her to return to Indonesia, change her usual outfit into one that was considered syar’i or covering the entire body and her face with a burqa, and preach for the forum’s ideology. In return, Anggani would receive a salary sufficient for living in her village. She did not accept this however, and left the forum.

Yet communities also breed resistance. While radicalization through both new-media contents and direct socialization have made sympathizers, the involvement of migrants in identity-based/hometown communities could also play a role in preventing extremism from spreading. In communities that often hold gathering, such as the tahlilan, leaders tend to maintain traditional values while carefully considering new values that are foreign to them. For those organizing as communities, it is important to not only hold a gathering but also educate the participants about the negative influences of radical groups that might infiltrate during the gathering. This may help to protect those that are particularly vulnerable and who are looking for support during a difficult time in a foreign place.

Pamungkas A. Dewanto (Yudha) is a PhD-student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU Amsterdam. He is conducting ethnographic research on the transnational advocacy networks of Indonesian migrant workers’ communities in Malaysia. The earlier draft of this article was appeared in www.buruhmigran.or.id in Indonesian language.


[2] See detailed study on the emergence of informal brokers in Indonesia in Lindquist 2012.

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