'Egyptians are very easy to provoke. Two people can be talking among themselves about Morsi, then others jump in and interrupt. It happens on the tram or the train. Even though they don’t know one another, when they’re standing next to each other and don’t have the same opinion, they just jump in. Sometimes it even becomes physical. After observing the culture and characters of the Arab people, I support the use of military in transition. Only the Prophet can control the Arabs; if not the Prophet, then at least the military!'

Since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2010 we have become accustomed to reading and listening to the reflections of Western Middle East experts, journalists and commentators on the region’s tumult.

But how do other Muslims from outside the Middle East view the current turmoil and what do they think it means for them?

Today the Lowy Institute is launching a Report, jointly produced with the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta that tries to answer that question. 

Indonesian students in Egypt and Turkey, which I co-authored with Sidney Jones and Navhat Nuraniyah, is based on in-depth face-to-face interviews with 47 students across both countries.

The goal was not just to understand how Indonesian students saw the recent years of turbulence in the Middle East, but how it might have impacted on their political and religious outlooks. 

We chose Egypt both because it hosts the largest Indonesian student population in the Middle East with some 4500 there, but also because it has gone through some of its most tumultuous years of its modern history, with a popular uprsing and a military coup in the last five years. That disturbance has raised all sorts of important questions relevant to a range of Muslim countries, not least about the role of Islamist parties in democratic politics.

Turkey has more recently become a destination for Indonesian students, and not all students go there to study religion. The student population is smaller, just over 700 strong, and more widely dispersed around the country. Turkey’s recent history has been less turbulent than Egypt’s but it has become a major transit point for foreign fighters going into Syria.

Most of the studnets we interviewed came from two large Indonesian Islamic movements, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. Just under a quarter were affiliated with the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, a political party originally modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood that is represented in Indonesia’s parliament. 

The perspectives provided by the students did throw up some surprises.

Most of the students interviewed in Egypt for example, backed the military in its 2013 coup against the elected-president Mohammad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood.

One might have expected that they, as religious students, would show more sympathy toward the overtly religious Morsi. Why they didn’t reflected a range of factors, not least a sense (as demonstrated in the quote above) that the locals seemed an unruly mob who required a firm hand.

Also interesting was the limited role religiosity seemed to play as a criteria in students’ judgments of local political leaders. Turkey’s president Recip Tayyip Erdogan won points for piety, but even greater kudos for his transformation of the Turkish economy. Morsi, by contrast, was seen as a failure because he didn’t fix Egypt’s economy and moved too fast in pursuit of his Islamic agenda.

There is also interesting detail in the report about the interactions of Indonesian students with the locals. Many supplemented their formal religious education by attending the study circles of prominent local preachers. But as the quote below suggests, it doesn’t always seem that the choice of scholar was made on the basis of their religious knowledge:

'We study with Sheikh ‘Alaa. He is closest to foreigners, especially from Indonesia and Malaysia. People who live in Alexandria get jealous, because there are very few Indonesians there, but he bonds with us. Almost everyone is invited to converse, almost every day there’s a study session, we have hadroh [Islamic music], nasyid [Islamic songs]. And that’s why, if you go to Alex for a break, after exams, it’s really crowded. Spiritual refreshing, we call it, ha ha. The reason we like Sheikh ‘Alaa? Because he’s, well, if you saw him, you’d fall in love, ha ha ha. Handsome, smiles a lot and, wow, he’s sooo tall!'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Asian Development Bank.