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Islamic TV in Indonesia: piety or commodity?

In Indonesia, some Muslim preachers are TV stars with massive followings. Syahril Siddik studied how they operate and how their viewers react. On 9 November, he successfully defended his dissertation in Islamic Studies.

'It started almost as soon as the Indonesian mass media were liberalised in 2001. All the new commercial TV companies used their prime time for programmes that propagated Islam. Even the Christian-owned TV station! It really drew my attention. What was happening?

My first hypothesis was commodification. These companies are broadcasting Islamic TV programmes because it is the biggest market. Like people selling ‘halal’ products. After all, Islam has become very dominant in the Indonesian public sphere.

But there’s more to it. In my dissertation I study how these programmes are produced and circulated to the public via TV. And I also wanted to know who the audiences are and how they view the preachers.'

Isn’t religious television a global phenomenon?

'Indeed. Just like the Christian televangelists, Muslim TV preachers have their own distinctive styles and topics. For instance, a preacher named Aa Gym always talked about the relationship between husband and wife. He portrayed himself as a good loving husband. But then around 2008, he took a second wife… That cost him a lot of his followers. Because most of the viewers are women.

Another one, Yusuf Mansur, had gone bankrupt as a businessman and spent time in jail twice because of his debt. He preaches that you can become rich by giving alms. In a dream, he met a prominent scholar who told him to tell people about the miracles that happen to almsgivers.

But preaching on TV brings its own rewards. I found that financially, TV is mainly self-promotion for the preachers. Their real market is elsewhere. For instance among regents in the provinces, who may invite them to preach for a lot of money. And they find other ways to capitalise on their popularity. Such as building their own Islamic boarding schools for the children of their followers.'

How do viewers regard these programs?

‘I found that the programmes have become a sort of company for middle-class people. They’re broadcast during prime time, which in Indonesia is around six in the morning. People watch them at home or in small restaurants while they have breakfast before going to the office. Even non-Muslims listen, especially to Mamah Dedeh, a female preacher who often makes jokes in the Jakarta dialect.’

So, is it really just commodification of Islam, or is it more?

‘On the one hand, TV companies select their preachers for their good looks and their rhetorical skills. But after 2010 they did start hiring people with a solid Islamic education.

In my research I found that these religious scholars negotiate topics with the producers, since they want to improve piety in society. Eventually they’ll agree on something simple and practical.

But controversy cannot always be avoided, because often there’s a question and answer session with the audience in the studio and elsewhere. And that triggers debate in society, because the audiences will ask other Muslim scholars for their opinions on the same topic.

Many middle-class people really follow the advice from the TV preachers. So the media are creating an alternative religious authority. There’s not only the traditional Muslim organisations or the Islamic boarding schools anymore. Believers can refer to TV preachers for religious and also for other socio-political advice.

It’s very dynamic. Because individual people can choose day by day which preachers they want to follow.’

One last question: is faraway Leiden a good place to do research into Indonesian society?

'Yes! Especially for historical materials Leiden is the place. For instance, to learn about Islamic programs on TV before the liberalisation I used old tabloids and magazines on microfiche in the Leiden special collection. In Indonesia it’s really difficult to find that kind of source material, even in the national library. And of course, Leiden has several scholars who are experts about Indonesia or Southeast Asia.’

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