In addition to the severe New Year floods, we were also shocked by a viral video of girl and boy scouts. Their yells included: “Islam-Islam yes, kafir-kafir no”. For Jakartans, the scene from Yogyakarta harked back to the 2017 gubernatorial election, in which incumbent and candidate Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was denounced as a kafir (infidel).
Yet such expressions and teaching of intolerance have entered the core of disciplinary education starting at preschool level. This article departs from research on religious disciplinary education at the level of early childhood education (PAUD), which includes kindergarten (TK), PAUD equivalent units (SPS), Raudhatul Athfal (Islamic kindergarten under the Religious Affairs Ministry), and Islamic integrated kindergarten, conducted on and off from 2013 to 2019. This study shows how the imposition of religious discipline leads to education that promotes intolerance.
Although preschool education has not always aimed to instill religious discipline, this research finds a strong tendency that preschool institutions are being relied on as a place to instill religious teachings or worship and also as a means to exercise moral control. The scope of religious discipline and moral control in these preschool institutions is very broad, from introducing basic skills, such as reciting short daily prayers before eating or sleeping, memorizing short Quranic verses, to other basic teachings on Muslims’ obligations including emphasis on the values of monotheism (tauhid).
In the teaching of tauhid we found content with teachings and expressions of intolerance, exclusiveness and even hints of violence against groups with other beliefs or kafir.
Discipline is instilled through routine learning and motoric activities in movement, songs or the introduction of vocabulary. For example, the song “Aku Anak Soleh” (I am a pious child) contains the phrase “Cinta Islam sampai mati” (Love Islam until death), accompanied by crossing one’s arm at the neck — imitating a knife or a sword cutting one’s throat.
Compared with studies on the encroachment of radicalism in junior and high schools and universities, little attention has been paid to teaching with intolerant or violent content in preschool educational institutions. Generally it is assumed that radicalization is a process of instilling an ideology, which requires a process of thinking and awareness raising, while preschool instills discipline through habit formation.
Michel Foucault, in his famous book Discipline and Punishment, observed that discipline is closely associated with power which controls its objects through an all-seeing telescope, the “panopticon”, and by normalizing moral evaluations. In preschool education, religious discipline and moral control are not done through military-style hierarchical observation as per Foucault’s theory, but rather through a collective will to strengthen the “fortress of faith” in children starting at an early age.
In our case this collective will is based on the belief that the Muslim community faces moral threats that would even impact the community’s economy, threats caused by “social deviations” such as juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, drugs and “deviating” sexual and gender expressions.
The cause of these deviations is considered to be weakening of belief and lack of religious teaching. The solution is “social renovation”, starting as early as possible, through preschool education and religious discipline with various teaching methods, ranging from playing to memorizing.
This collective will now function as a giant panopticon, in which society becomes an engine for control through religious and moral discipline in preschool educational institutions.
The most obvious forms of moral discipline are the ways girls are taught to dress and to behave, as well as threats related to unbelievers.
The mechanism of this disciplinary control is very simple: using financial threats. The survival of a preschool educational institution depends entirely on community funding. And the more students, the larger state subsidy received.
Actually preschool educational institutions are businesses. The competition for students encourages their operators to follow parents’ desires and expectations, including to strengthen the “fortress of faith”, as well as children’s readiness to start primary school with basic reading, writing and arithmetic abilities.
Religious discipline, as Foucault conveys, is used as a community’s means of surveillance and control to monitor the extent to which religious teachings are applied in an educational institution.
Thus teachings of intolerance easily enter the class, no longer through a side door as in high school, or through extracurricular activities such as Islamic spirituality sessions, but directly through the front door.
This is because control by parents who want their children to master basic religious learning can be fulfilled by groups promoting anti-tolerance, which offer religious discipline in teaching material. This encourages preschool educational institutions — even those not under religious auspices — to adopt learning material developed by intolerant educational institutions, so that their schools do not lose students.
The development of social/political Islam and the growth of religious identity politics in Indonesia has significant influence on teaching material content in Islamic preschools. This can be seen from the themes of the learning material, as reflected for instance in the songs and motoric activities of the children. Changing trends in religious life at the family level, along with parents’ expectations regarding religious education in preschool institutions, have led to more intensive religious educational content in preschools.
Meanwhile, the state’s policy which places preschool as educational institutions established on the community’s initiative, plus the limited knowledge of most preschool operators and teachers — who were largely born since the Reform Era and thus grew up in an atmosphere of Islam as identity politics — have contributed to a steady rise in intolerance in the country’s preschool religious education.
As intolerance today is found even in Indonesia’s educational institutions, solutions must go beyond penalties or guidance to the troubled institutions.
Mainstreaming tolerance must be the solution but not by imposing the Pancasila state ideology as in the past. Forcing an ideology may have closed opportunities for genuine, open discussions in which differences are accepted without friction and conflict. We have instead become more intolerant because the state had forced its view on what tolerance is and how to express it.
Today we’re seeing the fruit of settling past differences through banning all expressions regarding ethnicity, religion, race and other group characteristics for the sake of stability, without instilling in people how to healthily nurse differences, by fostering many safe spaces that reflect our plurality.
Director of Rumah KitaB, a research institute for policy advocacy for the rights of the marginalized.