All singing and dancing – Islamic pop music in Indonesia

First published on The State

Pop singers like Vidi Aldiano are nothing like the nasyid* groups, the more conventional all-male singers of Islamic ditties. Young, fresh-faced and nary a skullcap in sight, he dresses like any other young man in urban Indonesia in ubiquitous t-shirt and slim-fitting jeans. The music is like any other unoriginal minor hit song cryogenically preserved since the 1990s, the only dissonance being his lyrics. He sings about Keagungan Tuhan (The Greatness of God), urging his fellow young Muslims to pray and praise God while a group of young women and men stop a game of basketball to start dancing cheerfully to an unmistakeably teeny-bopper choreography.

The song was released during Ramadan of 2009; following the tradition in the Muslim world, people and consumables become more ‘Islamic’ during this period. Among other things, female media personalities would don the headscarf, television stations broadcast religious dramas and documentaries, and the latest Islamic film would be released to coincide with a period of penance and reflection. There has been some commentary on the rise of Islamic pop singers who combine aspects of hip hop, gospel, and generic pop to produce updated versions of nasyid. Yet recently a secularised image of Islamic pop culture has been gaining a foothold in mainstream Indonesian culture, one that is stripped of its obvious Islamic symbolisms—headscarves, skull caps, Quranic inscriptions in Arabic, and even the colour green.

Alongside their more conventional Islamic musical contemporaries, there are rock bands who, on the surface and musically, are like any other ‘secular’ rock band but sing about strengthening the Islamic faith. Similar to Christian rock bands, an Islamic rock band replaces the song’s object of love and desire from ‘you’ to ‘God’. For example Gigi, an influential mainstream Indonesian rock band, looks like any other pop and rock ensemble. Broody, long-haired, and sometimes menacing, the singer belts out a tune about the gates of Heaven and how one enters it come the Day of Reckoning. In another particularly upbeat song, set incongruously against a dark chamber lit only by floating lightbulbs, the lead singer calls upon the listener to worship. Gigi’s electric guitars and pulsating drums recall inoffensive and edgeless mainstream North American rock bands such as Nickleback and 3 Doors Down. And the song itself? It is catchy.

Some may wonder whether bands like Gigi follow a similar aesthetic and politics as Islamic punk and heavy metal groups like The Kominas and al-Thawra. There are immediate commonalities: both are unconventional musical expressions that foreground the Islamic image of its performers and appeal to a youthful audience disenchanted with values incompatible with Islam encased in Western music. But following the crackdown on punk subculture in Indonesia, other anarchic and culturally subversive groups may be not looked upon too kindly.

The mainstreaming of Islamic popular culture is further evidenced by shifts in its temporality. Previously, Islamic television programming, music, and films were only released during Ramadan. Islamic popular culture prior to the 1990s was considered a commercially risky venture and unprofitable in Indonesia. If people needed ‘religion,’ they turned to religious leaders, prayer and Quranic recitation groups, and their local mosques. Today, however, they are found throughout the year. There are now questions of whether Indonesia is becoming more Islamic, or whether Islam has become more secularised.

Rather than receding from the public sphere, religion in an increasingly secularised world has been experiencing waves of revivalism. One unintended byproduct of secularisation of society is that religion became decentralised rather than being a power wielded solely by a central religious authority. Shifting increasingly towards the peripheries of power, religion has entered the marketplace en masse. These trends and the merging of images of modernity and Islam that were once considered contradictory have created what many describe as ‘Islamic modernities’ in a landscape of multiple modernities. The Islamic modernity seen in Indonesia is a political and cultural sensibility whereby a commitment to Islam is embraced alongside approximations of western notions of modernity.

Indonesia may not be globally known outside Southeast Asia for its pop culture or a key figure of the Islamic world, but it offers interesting clues to the way the biggest population of Muslims in the world engage with the geopolitics of post-9/11. The explosion of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia parallels the development of Christian popular culture in the US, simply because it has similar basic ingredients: the liberalisation and mass marketisation of religion. For decades since the mid-1960s, Indonesia was regarded as a beacon of Islamic moderation. With communism held firmly under the lid (with the help of the US government, no less), the Suharto regime also ensured that Islam remained unpoliticised and ‘non-extreme.’ Unpolitical Islam was (and still is) a good thing for secular politicos and commentators who were wary of revivalist Islam’s power to inspire Muslims to rise, in myriad and often unpredictable ways, against western hegemonic dominance. But following the resignation of Suharto, public and political manifestations of Islam gained momentum and reclaimed the mediascape.

The big question is, then, who listens to Islamic pop music? Are they anything like the followers of Christian rock music? Do they belong to a parallel universe sequestered from mainstream culture? The 1990s witnessed the bourgeoisification of the Muslim middle classes who equated the Veblenian display of public piety with social status. Since then, the steady march of mass consumerism finds itself face to face with an increasingly conscientious set of consumers keen on making spiritual meaning of their consumption. Conditions were then ripe for the proliferation of all things Islamic: fashion, comic books, make-up, and even toothpaste could become Shari’a compliant and reassuringly halal.

For some, it is frustratingly difficult to equate Islamic consumption with actual piety. Consumption of media has become widespread rather than specialised (and sacralised) to particular space and time, and too convenient. Spiritual respite is only a click or button away, rather than being a ritualised series of practices. Savvy marketers of Islamic pop culture sell their wares not only for Muslims but for everybody, as the products are imbued with good universal values rather than those exclusive to Muslims.

Although there have been plenty of debates decrying the commercialisation of Islam, one can never really draw a clear line distinguishing between what is sacred and profane, religious and secular, worship and entertainment. It is not seen as good enough to assume that consumers of Islamic popular culture are passive recipients of God’s message, pure and transparent. The answer may lie in the media theories of Katz and McQuail who propose that consumers of media are better understood through examining why they consume certain media products, and how they gratify certain desires and pleasures. Thus the need to appear pious may be too straightforward for the huge swaths of discerning and increasingly sophisticated Muslim consumer of media in Indonesia.

The growth of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia matters a great deal when we think about the global impact of hegemonic media representations of Muslims. Since the attacks on 9/11, the Bali bombings of 2002, and the release of Islamophobic films Submission in 2004 and Fitna in 2008 by Dutch filmmaker and far-right politician Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders respectively, producers of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia have become emboldened by a new kind of urgency, one that is characterised by the need to produce new, progressive, and thoroughly modern images of Muslims and their cherished values. The rise of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia joins the ranks of successful nasyid groups in neighbouring Malaysia and to a lesser extent, the Arabic-singing rock bands of Thailand, who are embraced by a subset of the Muslim middle-class and working class.

The production of Islamic music and other forms of popular culture such as Muslim youth-oriented novels and cinema can be seen as a concerted effort of ‘writing back’ against dangerous Muslim stereotypes, and are probably directed to an imagined West itself. But Islamic media is as much an internal circuit of representations for producers and consumer who engage with issues related to cleavages within Islam, gender and sexuality, and capitalism as it is a dialogue with the West.

*Nasyid is derived from the Arabic nashid (plural: anashid) for ‘song’ or ‘hymn.’

The street as stage: Muslims participating in peaceful protests

While in Denmark and Indonesia this year, I found myself standing alongside people who took to the streets to demand the end of oppression against Muslims. In Copenhagen in late summer was a protest against the retainment of the Danish armed forces in Afghanistan. In Jakarta on Valentine’s Day feminist and Muslim activists and members of the film-making community stood outside on Bunderan HI to demand the end of the extremist group Front Pembela Islam’s (violent and at times, murderous) activities. Of course Muslim people are more than capable of protesting peacefully, having tea and biscuits while at it, and always happy to chat with passersby-cum-inadvertent-participants like myself about why they were out there.

Film director Hanung Bramantyo speaking to the press and the public.

Commodification of Islam in Malaysia: A postmodern condition

First published on New Mandala on 8 November 2012.

At the World Halal Week held annually in Kuala Lumpur, you can purchase halal bone china, an exemplar of luxury and piety rolled into one. Malaysia is the leader in halal certification and a major promoter of the global halal industry. With markets saturated with a mind-boggling array of sharia-compliant goods that cater to a more discerning Muslim middle class, Islam can be seen as having entered more deeply into the lives of Malaysian Muslims in more commodified ways than ever before. The line between the sacred and the consumable profane have blurred, and true to the dictum that Islam is ‘a way of life’,  anything which supports the notion of good Muslim personhood can now be made halal. The explosion of consumer goods imbued with spiritual meaning is a new phenomenon spurred on by the broadening middle classes disenchanted with meaningless consumerism. Now consumer goods can have real intrinsic, spiritual meaning. But how did everything beyond consumables (and indeed items beyond meat) become halal.

Commodification of culture started as a phenomenon that emerged from the early capitalist period of Fordist mass production which then intensified during late capitalism. Flexible and geographically mobile post-Fordist market approaches shifted from mass production to a more fragmented, niche market to suit every possible types of lifestyle. The ‘religious’ lifestyle or public piety characterised by halal crockery, toothpaste, make-up, and even beer can be regarded an outcome of post-Fordist modes of production. Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetish’ may be the most relevant point of entry into understanding the commodification of objects and practices that were previously not considered commercial.

In Marx’s analysis, commodity fetish requires the concealment of the origins and processes involved in the production of a consumer product from the consumer in order to maintain the ‘religious fog’ that justifies the mystery of its self-evident value. Religious symbols and meaning as commodity fetish may behave in the same manner, in that the deeper engagement of the purpose and context of a particular symbol are sidestepped and usurped by other distracting elements that vie for the attention of the consumer. The self-evident value of a religious commodity is intrinsically located within itself rather than the processes that lead to its points of ‘origin’.

The abstraction of all other factors involved in the production of a commodity has profound consequences on not just our relationship with literal consumer products but also with symbols, religious or otherwise. The post-Fordist condition demands the proliferation of diversity and thrives on the specialisation of products (and labour). Driven by the perpetuated need for ‘new’ and ‘ever more novel-seeming goods’, styles and signifiers are extracted from their previous associations and fused together to produce new products in what Jameson calls ‘pastiche’ for new consumers in new contexts. The ease with which such meaning and symbols are removed from their original contexts may point to their increasingly depthless, untethered, and frictionless qualities.

Investigations into religious commodification have challenged theories of secularisation in modern society demonstrating that far from a wholesale decline in public belief in God and church membership, modern and rational societies, in particular those in Asia and the United States, continue to embrace religion and imbue public life with notions of religious essence. The rise of religious commodification has been argued to go hand in hand with the emergence of ‘Islamic modernity’, a political and cultural sensibility whereby modernity is embraced alongside a commitment to Islam as part of the project of modernity in its own terms as much as its approximations to western notions of modernity.

The concept of ‘Islamic modernity’ have a Lyotardian suspicion against the grand narrative of western modernity in favour of a more hybrid and reflexive modernity inflected with faith-based sensibilities where non-western contexts experience the rise of advanced economies and public cultures. The Islamic modern can be located in the popular consumption of Islamic media and Islamic forms of consumerism that at times exist, not without friction, alongside orthodox Islamic beliefs and practices.

When does a symbol cease becoming sacred and becomes simply a commodity bereft of its spiritual meaning? Can they become both? Halal products now have become more than just a spiritual choice but made to be synonymous with quality. However, there is considerable debate among practitioners and scholars about the effects of commodified forms of Islam. Some have praised the increased presence of Islam in the marketplace as it encourages the incorporation of Islamic values into the everyday practices of Muslims. Others have been less celebratory, arguing that the commercialisation of Islam appeals to superficial expressions of piety. Where does one draw the line for halal products? Does the choice to not utilise halal products make one less a conscientious Muslim?

The circulation of Islamic symbols outside the formalist domains and authority of the state and religious institutions and into the market and the media coheres with the emergence of Muslim publics. Facilitated by increasing access to new modes of communication, the creation of the Muslim public sphere challenges the authority of conventional religious institutions and fosters the building of a civil society and the ‘global ummah (community)’. The so-called Islamic revivalism across Muslim societies of the world coupled with increased communication and economic opportunities have boosted the production of things ‘Islamic’ which occurs alongside the increasing adoption of a public pious image amongst the consumer middle-class.

With all things considered, it is not an understatement to say that Islam is big business. But in Malaysia, where the conflation of ethnic and Islamic identity is a political and socioeconomic issue, consumer habits aligned with aspirational piety form just another disciplinary mode to reinforce the boundary markers of such an identity. To purchase halal products may just be another way of asserting one’s Malay identity. In the mounting challenges to Malay privilege and positive discrimination, Islamic consumerism may be a way to reinstate a sense of meaning and belonging.  Perhaps unexpectedly, Malaysia’s mall culture and ethnic/religious anxiety over the loss of institutional privilege were destined to become kindred spirits.

Mainstreaming Islam in the Indonesian public sphere: Ummi Aminah as a case study

The film premiere of Aditya Gumay’s newest film, Ummi Aminah (Mother Aminah) in Jakarta last January 2012 was situated at the crossroads of events in Indonesian film industry. Prior to the screening of the film, the film director’s address to the audience expressed a plea to the public to consume locally-made films. As I write this, the Indonesian film industry is experiencing a decline in cinema audience numbers. From a respectful 1 million viewers in 2010, now film-makers and producers can expect a modest half a million. Production values of current and future films, and the distribution and packaging of original DVDs will reflect the slump as well. Gumay’s latest offering, Ummi Aminah, to woo audiences is at once shrewd and chimes with the Indonesian socio-political zeitgeist.

The film is promoted as a ‘family film’ about a popular female preacher and the dramatic entanglements that befall her large family and her reputation as a religious leader. Ummi Aminah is mother to five children and grandmother of one. In her role as preacher, she is also ‘mother’ to her all-female congregation who pray with her and listen to her sermons. However, indiscretions within her family; rumours surrounding her oldest daughter Zarika’s involvement with a married man and her son Zainal’s arrest for drug trafficking move in tandem to threaten to not only tear her family apart but also tarnish her reputation as a credible leader both on the public and domestic front.

Via Wikipedia

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