Al-Khoirot Institute of Islamic Studies, Malang, ID. WA: 0822-2667-4747


Obama, Madrassa and Pesantren

Indonesian madrasah* gets five-minutes fame in the US media for the “wrong” reason: Senator Barack H. Obama, a hot presidential candidate from Democrat allegedly was educated in Indonesia’s madrasah during his childhood years in Indonesia along with his mother.

The news emanated from Insight Magazine, an American right-wing-stripe media owned by the same company as the Washington Times (not to be confused with the blue-stripe Washington Post).

The news then debunked by CNN as false. According to its Jakarta bureau, “Obama lived in Indonesia as a child, from 1967 to 1971, with his mother and stepfather and has acknowledged attending a Muslim school, but an aide said it was not a madrassa.”
But even the so-called blue-stripe media like CNN makes the following prejudiced-cum-ignorant intro to the same news (emphasis is mine):


Allegations that Sen. Barack Obama was educated in a radical Muslim school known as a “madrassa” are not accurate, according to CNN reporting.

Kopi Susu questions the CNN or American people in this matter:

This raises the question: So what if Obama had gone to a madrassa for a while? Would it kill us to have a president who knows a little about Islam? On the contrary, the evidence suggests we’re more likely to get killed by a president who doesn’t know much about Islam.


Since I’d been educated in madrasah since my childhood before further my study to law and political science, I know exactly what madrasah means. Basically, as far as Indonesia, it refers to 10+2 school which teach Islamic teaching, such as Quran and its interpretation and Hadith, beside secular sciences. The percentage differs from madrasah to another. It could be 50-50 or 30-70 etc.

Pondok Pesantren Al-Khoirot Malang
Pondok Pesantren Al-Khoirot Malang

So, like any 10+2 graduate, any madrasah students can also further their study into university and field of study of their choosing. The madrasah leaver, however, will have more advantage than their compatriot from ordinary high-school would, in the sense they’re more equipped to be a mass leader or the future intellectual of the most-populous Muslim country such as Indonesia where religious knowledge is required to be more connected with the people especially in the rural area.

Most prominent Indonesian intellectual and leaders were mostly educated from madrasah. Abdurrahman Wahid, former Indonesian president, Nurcholis Madjid, and Ulil Abshar Abdalla are among those prominent leaders and intellectuals with mass following whose early education were in madrasah and pesantren.


So far as Indonesia goes, to some extent, madrasah is almost identical with pesantren, or boarding school in the West. Any pesantren usually has madrasah, although not every madrasah belongs to pesantren.

Pesantren or Pondok Pesantren  is just like an education laboratory where all educational-related institution is in one place: hostel to accomodate all students, teaching staffs and all directorial boards, mosque to pray, madrasah and/or secular school to study.

Some pesantrens also run university, and teach Islamic and/or secular science. A good example for this description is a pesantren run by my brother which now just open a new course: Information Technology Institute.

Why the Prejudice?

If CNN, claimed to be “the first to know” and arguably has the most wide-range network of reporters including in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, used the unpleasant and ignorant adjective about madrasah and/or pesantren as “radical Muslim school known as a ‘madrassa'”, then how the American right-wing media will call it; or how American people will judge Indonesian madrasah or any other people outside America who their government and media think negatively, such as Iran, Korea, Cuba, etc?

We tend to make prejudice and generalisation about something we know little which attract media attention for good or wrong reason. I don’t mind if wrong generalisation is made based on what’s been done by majority in a particular community, say 60 per cent or above. But if mistake-prejudice is based on a tiny miniscule fraction of a one-odd billion people, it’d be very naive, to say the least.

In the case of madrasah what makes American media and people know about this institution is madrasah that creates Afghanistan’s Taliban and Pakistan’s madrasah that breeds terrorism. Since these madrasah have more than one similiraties and “identitities” with other madrasah–i.e. run by Muslim, teaching religious-related science– it’s easy to conclude that “all madrasahs are radical and, therefore, the source of Muslim militants.”

American should not forget that if we want to be as ignorant as you are in making hasty generalised judgement, what would you expect me to say about American invasion to Iraq for a reason evidently wrong–WMD; an invasion which was nodded by all Congress–as represent of your soul and spirit; led by George Bush who most of you have voted to lead and whose rationale ever change–WMD, freedom, democracy, no pull-out ’till winning?

But no. We’ll never do that. We believe there’re still many good Americans whose liberty-spirit and understanding will never wane even by the media propaganda whose sole purpose is to justify anything American and blame anthing Islam.

Update 31/1/07

Several American expats sent me emails on this issue. Some of them are interested in Obama details, some others question my writings about madrasah and pesantren by confronting the fact that Abu Bakar Baasyir, the alleged master mind of bali bombing who are himself a pesantren director/owner. While it’s a fact that a tiny percentage of pesantren, just like a tiny percentage of American evangelist, has radical view upon others; the fast majority of them are very unpolitical. And as majority of peaceful pesantren/madrasah affiliate one way or another to the biggest Muslim organisation, NU (nahdlatul ulama), this tiny radical pesantren do not.

I also urge them to spend their precious time to visit dan talk directly to pesantren owners in Indonesia, instead of relying on media feed, most of them are run by Christians. Everyone knows what a good journalist should be: talking to the heart of the issue.


*Wikipedia correctly uses madrasah, not madrassa as many English media tend to spell, as its main entry for this word. For those who understand Arabic, the origin of the word, this is the closest sound, and probably the most correct.


4 thoughts on “Obama, Madrassa and Pesantren

  1. I have a passion for visiting other countries, and have found that my time spent in other cultures has greatly expanded my knowledge, understanding, and curiosity, as I know it has done for Barak Obama. Wow- what an amazing education he has received! I want to know more about his time in Indonesia.

  2. obama, madrasah and pesantren adalah sesuatu yg tidak bisa dipisahkan dari kehidupan seorang patriot kandidat terpilih presiden amerika.

  3. mas, website muhamadiyah said he was in SD 1 menteng. is that correct?

    #I’m not sure either Mulia. i just quoted from another source too.

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