Mainstreaming Islam in Indonesia

Edwin Jurriëns

This study provides a much-needed, original perspective on Islamism by analysing how aspects of Indonesia’s majority religion have been channelled and disseminated to audiences by the country’s most popular mass medium, television. It is also one of few studies combining media theory with a comprehensive analysis of the grounded realities of the production, distribution and consumption of television in a specific locality. It positions Islam-oriented television in the broader socio-political context of religious politics and social perspectives, and also includes useful comparisons with Islamist ideas and practices elsewhere in the world. Based on in-depth PhD research, this book is landmark study in the emerging field of Asian cultural studies.

The broader argument of the book is that Islamism in the Indonesian context is the product of multiple, heterogeneous forces, also including aspects of secularism, modernity, democracy, and global capitalism. The study demonstrates how a dominant factor in ‘mainstreaming’ Islam in Indonesia has been the commercial media industry’s desire to capitalise on the buying power of the country’s rapidly expanding Muslim urban middle class. Media companies have commodified Islam by including religious references in tested, low-cost and social risk-averting genres such as supernatural reality shows, dakwah (proselytising) music and competition shows, and sinetron religi (religious television drama).

One of the strengths of the book is the detailed analysis of the careful negotiations between commercial considerations and real and perceived audience desires and expectations in the shaping and screening of Islamic television genres. Apart from providing background on the political economy of the Indonesian media industry, Inaya Rakhmani demonstrates how this struggle is represented in the television shows themselves. She includes highly instructive tables and examinations of the various relations between titles and plots, themes and social issues, social settings and main characters, narratives and underlying schemes, and social relationships and power structures.

For instance, supernatural drama, Islamic melodrama, and Islamic comedy – the three main subgenres of sinetron religi - reproduce ‘certain symbols to target a specific Muslim market envisioned by television stations … while remaining acceptable to the general heterogeneous audience’ (p. 79). One of the ideological differences noticed by the author is that Islamic melodrama tends to represent a distinction between public affairs and personal piety, while Islamic comedy expresses a desire for unity among the Indonesian middle class. Islamic supernatural drama, on the other hand, seems to legitimise social inequality by portraying the failures of modernity, absence of social security and fatalism affecting poor Muslims. In general, the various drama genres are less about promoting Islamic interpretation (ijtihad) than about encouraging the middle class to participate in developmentalism and subduing their anxiety about the social effects of urbanisation and industrialisation.

One of the author’s findings is that the independent Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (Komisi Penyiaran Indonesia, KPI), instead of representing a truly critical voice in the public interest, has contributed to the perpetuation of the relatively conservative, state-endorsed views on Islam. As a consequence, media practitioners have been forced to continue forms of self-censorship, contradictory to the ideal of a democratic, post-Reform Indonesia.

Another highlight of the book are the interviews with students from Jakarta, Makassar, Banjarmasin, Denpasar, Banda Aceh, and Jayapura about their perceptions about the Islamic television shows as well as the role of religion in their personal lives and society in general. This section highlights the views of educated middle-class youth about issues such as religious pluralism, mysticism, family relations, polygamy, labour divisions, education and the role of the media. One of the key findings is that traditional, lower-class or uneducated people are ‘doubly orientalised, first, by being marginalised by materialism, and second, by being othered as less than modern than their developmentalist Indonesian counterparts’ (p. 143). At the same time, the study shows that students in Banda Aceh and Jayapura seem to reject mainstream Islam, partially in resistance towards Javanese cultural dominance and the political and economic power of Jakarta.

While the book’s inclusion of group discussions and interviews with representatives of Indonesia’s aspirational middle class are invaluable, the research would have gained further strength if conversations with and observations of the actual, everyday viewers of the television productions were included. This could have countered the very prejudices about these viewers by the educated urban youth. The engagements with Islam-oriented television by ordinary viewers may in fact be much more active, critical and political than commonly thought.

At the same time, middle class aspirations to become modern and educated cannot only be attributed to the legacy of New Order development ideology. Further study about middle-class expectations about the role of television and other media beyond the representation of Islam would be useful here. There is a real possibility viewers are not merely or necessarily seeking comfort in popular entertainment that is seemingly apolitical and avoiding conflict, but, instead, desperately longing for a high-quality public broadcasting equivalent to the likes of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

These are some further thoughts to the issue that only rich and innovative research projects like Rakhmani’s can provoke. I highly recommend her book to scholars and students with an interest in media, cultural, sociological and religious studies.