Story Publication logo June 2, 2017

Salafis in Paradise



An inside look at how Saudi Arabia uses money, scholarships, diplomacy, and media to propagate its...


Earlier this month I finally crossed the famous Wallace Line to reach the Indonesian island of Lombok, where I was reporting an unlikely pair of stories on "halal tourism" and migrant workers. Something about the color palette of this island really hit a chord with me. Whereas I find inland Bali sort of insufferably, decadently verdant, Lombok was, at least at the time of my visit, all shimmering light. The landscape's building blocks are the same—rice paddies, sand, palm trees—but it feels brighter. The animals are smaller.

One night on my trip I met up with a halal tour guide, Muhammad, to learn about his work. I was surprised, when he picked me up in his car, to see his short pants, naked ankles, hard-won wispy beard: he was a Salafi. I wouldn't have blinked twice in Jakarta, its suburbs, Sumatra, Batam… but I wondered what he was doing here, in the dens of iniquity that dot the resort towns of the Western Lombok coast, where I was staying. I kept this to myself as we drove to a seaside stall selling fire-roasted corn. Just stay on topic, I thought, as we climbed a coastal road.

So it was weird when he asked me, mid-cob, "What do you think of our Salafi movement?" I nearly choked; I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly. I had. He read my article in The Atlantic, he told me, and was curious how I became interested in it. Uh, well, you know, I'm interested in religious movements, I must have went on. He smiled. What does "Salafi" mean, he asked.

I knew this, at least. It's the Arabic word for forebearers; the Salafi movement aims to emulate the Islam of Koranic times and the Prophet Muhammad. He was surprised. That's right! At least you didn't say we are jihadists, he said. Well, obviously not, I told him. Most Salafis are quietist, in fact. They're supposed to follow the laws of whatever state they live in. He loved this.

"Good, good, you know we are peaceful," he told me. I asked him how he came to the manhaj. I was quite decadent in my youth, he said. Smoking, drinking, lusting after girls—the usual stuff. There are no jobs in Lombok so I worked for a while in a Kalimantan mine. It was hard work, so I went to East Java and opened a food cart selling roast fish. That was less hard, but not exactly profitable. Anyway, I came home to Lombok and had some free time to start reading the Quran and then attend discussion groups in Mataram, the town center.

Lombok has a great Salafi network, actually, he told me. Many Gulf-state ulamas come to preach here. In 2012, he officially joined the movement. His parents weren't thrilled—they thought his beard was a one-way road to jihadism. But he showed them the scripture and philosophy that had sparked the change, and they came around too. Three years ago he got married. He met the girl in East Java and she came to live with him. She started wearing a burqa, a full-body veil after their marriage. She is a Salafi now, too. She loves wearing the veil, he told me, it's her choice. They had their first child last year and she started, again out of her own desire, to wear a niqab, the robe that covers everything except your eyes. She's pregnant again.

Doesn't this line of work get to you, I asked him—working constantly with foreign tourists? Salafis shun cultural innovation even within Islam, leave alone the West. Not really, he says—first of all, it's one of the few ways left to make money in Lombok. He only works with Muslim tourists and sometimes they're even curious about his beliefs. But what about basic facts of life like music I asked him. The corn roaster was playing dangdut on his radio. "You of all people know exactly what I think about it," he told me. Salafis denounce all music and dance. "No place is perfect, of course. But Lombok —island of 1000 mosques—is good in other ways."

I found out he was a loyal listener and viewer of Rodja TV and radio, the leading Salafi media network in Indonesia. I had recently reported from their headquarters in Bogor, West Java. A lot of Rodja preachers come to Lombok, he said. He and his friends help them vacation in private Gilis, the small islands that dot the Lombok coastline—halal Gilis. I guessed he wasn't talking about Gili Trawangan, a debaucherous car-free island with a rotating reggae party every night of the week.

Like many Salafis I've met, he was exceedingly polite. He also seemed so happy.

"You seem so happy," I told him.

He was happy, he said. He got to read the Quran every day— the most beautiful thing of all. His life seemed filled with meaning. I think it was.

"Anyway," he said, as he drove me back. "You should get married soon. Have children. That's God's plan for women."


teal halftone illustration of praying hands




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