The principal of an Islamic school in Indonesia is denying allegations that it encouraged extremism by staging a play about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which children put on outfits that made them look like jihadis.
The play caused a controversy because the young performers toted toy guns, while wearing headbands inscribed with Arabic words and masking their faces with sarongs, according to Indonesian media reports.
"We are not teaching radicalism. To the contrary, we are concerned for fellow Muslims," Tomi Rohili, principal of Asshafa Islamic Elementary School in Depok, West Java, which staged the play last month, told BenarNews in a phone interview.
"The media seems to have exaggerated this issue that our school has spread radicalism. And, for that, I wanted to clarify it is not true," he said.
Promoting anti-Israeli jihad?
As the principal described it, the play highlighted “the theme of caring for Muslims, especially Muslims in Palestine,” referring to the lack of statehood for the Palestinian people – a sore point with many Indonesians.
"In one section, the play was describing jihad against Israel, but the value was solely about solidarity among Muslims,” Tomi said.
"We truly hope that people are more receptive to art, and do not associate a children’s play with radicalism," he added.
When a BenarNews reporter called him back on Wednesday to ask him to clarify whether he endorsed the concept of jihad against Israel, Tomi replied, “We are not promoting radicalism or terrorism, but we are promoting to our students a humanitarian effort to help our fellow Muslims, including those who are suffering in Palestine.”
“Jihad is your hard work,” he added. “In this case, your hard work is to help our fellow Muslims.”
The school play, nonetheless, angered some people who saw it.
"I think the theme of the story is not appropriate for children. It involves a very sensitive political issue, especially between Palestine and Israel. The two countries have been in conflict for a long time," Herwina Hartini, a resident of Depok and parent of a student at the school, told BenarNews.
Heri Setiawan, another local resident who lives near the school and who has observed children from the school and faculty members pass by, dismissed the criticism of the play as greatly exaggerated.
"This is just a kid’s play. It is too early to conclude,” he told BenarNews.
As for how the people from the school have conducted themselves in the neighborhood, Heri described the teachers and students as polite and “behaving very religiously.”
Laws hinder counterterrorist efforts: BNPT official
The National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) has received a complaint about the play at Asshafa Islamic Elementary School, but it has not yet opened an investigation into the matter.
"Even though the message of the play was aimed to build solidarity among Muslims, students or people in general may take it incorrectly," BNPT Deputy Director Arief Dharmawan told BenarNews.
The BNPT is at the center of Indonesian governmental efforts to check the growth of radicalism in the archipelagic nation.
According to officials, Indonesia now faces a threat from the Islamic State (IS) extremist group recruiting young Indonesians for its jihadist cause in the Middle East. By BNPT estimates,at least 500 Indonesians are believed to be in Syria or Iraq, where they support IS’s jihadist cause in some form or another.
Apart from efforts to counter recruitment of jihadis via social media, the government says it is working to prevent youths from being recruited via Islamic schools.
According to Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, a psychologist at the University of Indonesia who advises the BNPT on its de-radicalization program – which aims to rehabilitate and reintegrate convicted terrorist into society – it is necessary to discourage people from becoming radicalized at a very young age.
He advocates changing the national curriculum and adding religious classes that would teach students to say no to radicalism.
"It is not true that religious issues are considered separate from education. The fight against radicalism in Indonesia through educational curriculum must take precedence," Sarlito said.
Security agencies such as the BNPT, meanwhile, are hampered from prosecuting radical or fundamentalist organizations because, under the nation’s existing laws, groups that are not registered with the authorities cannot be pursued, Arief Dharmawan noted.
"We proposed to revise Law No. 9 (1998) on the right to speak and Law no.17 (2013) about mass organizations to prevent the spread of the ideology of ISIS,” Arief said.
“In Indonesia, there are still many organizations, including Islamic organizations that are not registered," he added.
"How are we going to enforce the law if they are not registered?"
In his view, it is necessary to rewrite the laws so that the BNPT can go after unlicensed organizations such as the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) group.
"Without this [the revisions], these provocateurs, including IS’s supporters, may talk and spread the wrong ideology in public or through school activities such as a play," Arief added.