Friday, March 31, 2017

Mainstream Islamic narratives and their divisive consequences

Concern that hard-line Islamist groups are undermining Indonesia’s democracy has been rising over the past few years. Recently, allegations of blasphemy against Jakarta’s ethnically Chinese and Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, and the ensuing mass mobilisation of middle class Muslims in major demonstrations in November and December last year has dominated mainstream and social media. Many observers were shocked that intolerant discourse promoted by fringe groups seemingly resonated among hundreds of thousands of urban, middle-class Muslims. To some, this may seem like an unexpected radicalisation of these middle class Muslims. But mobilisation on this scale was made possible by a gradual process of rising Islamic visibility in the public sphere, as can be traced in the intersection between Islam and the middle-class market.

Indonesia’s middle class grew rapidly from 25 per cent of the population in 1999, to 45 per cent in 2010, and estimates suggest it will comprise 85 per cent of the population by 2020 (link is external). But the expansion of the middle class has also been accompanied by rising inequality and anxieties regarding the rapid changes brought by neoliberal reorganisation felt by large sections of the middle class.

The term “middle class (link is external)” is generally used to refer to those Indonesians who place relatively more emphasis on leisure and education (as a means to secure social position and wealth) and have a desire for legal certainty. The expansion of the middle class in Indonesia has also resulted in a rise in Islamic consumerism (link is external) as Indonesian Muslims seek to express their religious identities through their spending decisions. Islamic fashions, Islamic housing compounds, and Islam-themed films and television programs have become common.

The trend can be understood by taking a closer look at Islamic television programs, in particular, the popular prime time soap operas, or sinetron. The longest-running religious soap opera is Para Pencari Tuhan (God Seekers), which has aired every Ramadhan since 2007. Religious programming around Ramadhan has proved so marketable that the television industry long ago adapted its programming to include Ramadhan editions of soap operas, concerts, and talk shows. And now Islamic-themed television programs are no longer confined to Ramadhan but have become a prominent feature of prime time programming. Since roughly the mid-2000s, melodrama protagonists have been donning the hijab, notable in Munajah Cinta (Surrender to Love), Ketika Cinta Bertasbih (When Love is Glorified), and the Ramadhan version of Cinta Fitri (Fitri’s Love). One of the most popular recent soap operas was Tukang Bubur Naik Haji (Porridge Seller Goes on the Hajj), which aired between 2011 to 2017, with more than 2,000 episodes.

The television industry, like other consumer goods and service industries, packages its products to cater to the demands of its target consumers. The incorporation of Islamic themes in religious programming is based on research about which minutes in an episode attract the largest audiences, as well as focus group discussions as to why certain scenes were considered engaging. This insight is fed back to production houses to ensure that subsequent episodes include these representations. This mechanism guarantees a longer shelf life for popular religious soap operas.

For the television industry, members of the middle class are heterogeneous and stratified. Members of the lower middle-class are depicted as secure from poverty but lacking steady employment (the vulnerable middle class); members of the upper-middle class have steady employment, savings, and sufficient disposable income for leisure activities (the affluent middle class); while the aspirant middle class, in between, have steady employment but lack the savings to afford an affluent lifestyle. Each of these groups experience varying degrees of emotional turmoil in relation to their specifically limited capacity for upward mobility. Islamic soap operas and television programs reproduce ideas about Islamic morality targeted to each societal group.

Scenes in popular television shows depict vulnerable middle-class Muslims as fearing falling into poverty. They distrust state institutions for their failure to provide basic social services. Hospital staff may reject them for not being able to pay, leading them to resort to alternative, usually traditional medicines. Aspirant middle-class Muslims, meanwhile, are often seen as being anxious about hedonistic behaviour. Antagonists, who never wear Islamic clothing, are typically promiscuous sinners who try to tempt righteous Muslims into nightlife, drugs and alcohol. To prevent the disintegration of the family institution, aspirant middle-class Muslims practice religious rituals at home, thus protecting them from the dangers of hedonism. The last group, affluent middle-class Muslims, are often depicted as yearning for harmony among members of the Muslim community. With concern over how Muslims are leaving behind rituals, they try to rebuild the notion of a religious community, or ummah, through stronger social relations between the rich and the poor.

These narratives of mainstream Islam also promote how anxieties and aspirations can be addressed through consumerist behaviour. According to these narratives, parents can address the fear of hedonism, for example, by securing an Islamic education for their children and living in Islamic housing compounds. The problem of inaccessible health services, meanwhile, can be solved by alternative “Islamic” medicine. Issues regarding the fragmentation of Muslims in modern society are cured through ensuring that the rich give alms (zakat) for the poor to benefit from and gain more upward mobility.

The downside of this commercialisation of Islam, and the inclusion of Muslims in market capitalism, is that it has become a social process that encourages ideas and beliefs that aggravate rather than moderate social divisions. These Islamic, or halal, products help create a safe bubble that protect pious Muslims from the harms of the rapidly changing world. It shapes a narrow view that lumps various and specific failures of modern, urban society together, and imagines a general and illusive attack against Islamic virtues. Further, this bubble distances middle-class Muslims from the plural, democratic society they live in. It not only smoothes away class difference among the Muslim community, it also creates the impression that there is only one correct way to practice Islam, when the Indonesian experience of social diversity suggests that the opposite has been true.

Although narratives of Islam are far from unified, commercial imperatives are, sometimes inadvertently, contributing to divisions in Indonesian society. The dominance of a particular version of Islamic morality has created a rich cultural resource pool that can be mobilised during political contestation – as Indonesia saw in late 2016 during the demonstrations against Ahok. Ahok is an embodiment of this general attack, representing the volatility and hostility of the ever-changing social world in which middle-class Muslims live. The mass mobilisation of middle-class Muslims is, in part, a result of a shared apprehension towards the inevitable and expansive social change brought by neoliberal economic reorganisation. Thus, there lies a huge unaddressed need to restructure commercial activities and direct them toward repairing relations between different and, at times, contending social groups. Sadly, there is little sign so far that those who produce Muslim consumer goods are interested in cultivating social bonds across religion, class, and ethnicity.

This is a summary of a presentation titled “Performing Morality: Commercial television and the remaking of a Muslim Middle Class in Post Authoritarian Indonesia”, which was delivered at the Two Decades of Reformasi conference at the University of Melbourne on 3 November 2016. It highlights some of the arguments in Dr Rakhmani’s book Mainstreaming Islam in Indonesia: Television, Identity and the Middle Class (link is external)published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Inaya Rakhmani is a lecturer at the Department of Communications, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Indonesia and the head of its Communication Research Centre. She is an associate at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, and a member of the Indonesian Young Academy of Sciences.

 Dr Rakhmani will visit the University of Melbourne from 4-25 August as part of the Faculty of Arts Indonesia Initiative.

Robbie Gaspar: Champion footballer and outstanding ambassador for Indonesia-Australia relations

The Australia Indonesia Awards celebrate the contributions of those who provide inspiration and enhance understanding between Australians and Indonesians. AIYA is chronicling the achievements of these Career Champions in a series of interviews with this year’s finalists and winners. This week’s second interview is with professional footballer Robbie Gaspar.

Tell us a little about your career.

I played professional football for about 14 years throughout Australia, Europe and Asia. Most of my time was spent playing in Indonesia for about seven years. I retired from professional football in early 2013 and decided to head back to university, where I am currently completing a Bachelor of Business majoring in accounting and Indonesian. I also work for the Professional Footballers Australia as a Player Development Manager and as an advisor to FIFPro
Photo: Robbie Gaspar
Asia, which is the World Players Union for professional footballers. My work for FIFPro Asia is mostly Indonesia-, Malaysia- and Singapore-focused.

What brought you to connect with Indonesia?

Prior to moving to Indonesia in 2005 to play football, I had never been to Indonesia and never really had much experience with Indonesia. I had a few Indonesian friends but did not know too much about Indonesia in general. Back in 2004 I finished my contract in Malaysia and I was looking for a new club when my coach contacted me and said that a club in Indonesia was keen to sign me. I thought, “Why not? I will give it go,” as I had nothing to lose. I enjoyed my time so much in Indonesia that I left at the end of 2012. I had many offers to leave Indonesia to play elsewhere but I enjoyed my time so much living and playing in Indonesia that I decided to stay put.

Tell us about your current occupation.

I am currently a Player Development Manager with the Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) and also an Advisor to FIFPro Asia. My experiences and relationships built over the seven years have helped me tremendously with my work with both the PFA and FIFPro Asia. An example is that during my time in Indonesia I learnt how to speak Bahasa Indonesia and this is invaluable when I travel to Indonesia and Malaysia for FIFPro Asia.

How did you find your current job?

The opportunity to work with FIFPro came up in 2013 when the former Chairman of the PFA and FIFPro Asia and current UNI World Athletes Executive Director Brendan Schwab asked whether I would like to help with the restart of the Malaysian Players Union, which had been dormant for the past two years. I jumped at the chance, as I am extremely passionate about and advocating for player’s rights. Within six months the union was back up and running and continuing to go from strength to strength. The reasons why I was successful in getting the position was first and foremost because I am extremely passionate about protecting and advocating for rights of players, and secondly because my experiences in Malaysia and Indonesia and relationships with the players there help me to achieve this.

What do you enjoy the most — and least — about working in relation to Indonesia?

What did I enjoy the most about Indonesia? I enjoyed being able to do something I love in front of massive crowds day in, day out. Indonesians live, eat and breathe football and until you experience it you can’t believe it. What I didn’t enjoy and do not miss is the long travel by either planes or buses. Travelling from one end of Indonesia to
Photo: Robbie Gaspar
another and then having to play and then travel again, and back up three days later in the heat and humidity for another game is not easy.

What are your thoughts on the future of the Australian-Indonesian relationship in the field of sport?

Being a former professional sportsman I am a big advocator of sports diplomacy and it is great to see that the Australian Government released a sports diplomacy strategy in 2015. There is so much potential to build on the bilateral relationship through sport. Australians and Indonesians are so similar that we are both so passionate about our sports. I feel through sports, especially football or soccer, we can build those people-to-people links and maintain and strengthen cultural relations which are so important to the relationship.

What advice would you offer to youth interested in sport?

For Australians, do you research first before you head to Indonesia. Importantly, be humble and respectful and make a conscious effort to try learning the language as soon as you can.

Given the opportunity again, what would you do differently?

I loved my time in Indonesia and I am the person I am today due to my experiences there, so I wouldn’t want to change anything.

We would like to thank both Robbie and the President of the Australia Indonesia Association of NSW, Eric de Haas. You can find Robbie on Twitter and LindkedIn.

Saudi Arabian King Salman's nine-day trip to Indonesia is a worry for Australia

By Peter Harper

A parallel universe exists just 200 kilometres from Australia's shores. It's otherwise known as Indonesia. A remarkable event that you haven't heard about has just taken place there.
It was the subject of minute-by-minute, wall-to-wall TV coverage in Indonesia and the cause of great excitement, but it was near invisible in Australia's media.
For the first time in 47 years, the king of Saudi Arabia visited. It was "unparalleled in modern times" according to the South China Morning Post's David Dodwell.
King Salman travelled with seven ministers, 19 princes of the House of Saud, a total retinue of 1500 people and 460 tonnes of gear delivered by 27 cargo planes. It included tonnes of halal food, the most expensive car ever seen in Indonesia and other essentials such as two gold-coloured, portable escalators so the 81-year old monarch could descend effortlessly from his personal jet.
When he stopped over in Bali for some recreation after a stressful trip, his party booked out four five-star resorts. Ecstatic crowds greeted him wherever he travelled in Indonesia.
"The sheer extravagance completely awestruck his Indonesian audiences," reports ANU Indonesia expert Greg Fealy, who was in Jakarta. "All this stuff to show that expense was no object."
The visit had the desired effect. It so dazzled Indonesians that the country was struck by "a sudden amnesia", according to Fealy. All grudges, tensions and complaints seemed to be forgotten. "There was almost no critical commentary" in the Indonesian media, he reports.
The king is the custodian of the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina, the places that devout Muslims hope to visit on pilgrimage before they die. And Indonesia, of course, is the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation

Indonesia's President was happy to romanticise the visit, completely overlooking the contrast between Indonesia, one of the world's greatest democratic success stories, and Saudi, one of the  most notorious autocracies, family self-indulgence masquerading as a nation state.
"We have special ties with Saudi Arabia," said Joko Widodo, known universally as Jokowi, "united by Islam and brotherhood." Except that the countries' differences over Islam may be almost as great as their commonality.

Indonesia's state ideology of pancasila specifically guarantees religious pluralism. Its traditional form of worship is relaxed and tolerant. Indonesian Islam is redolent with "all the flavours it had picked up while stewing for centuries in the rich cultures of the islands," as journalist Elizabeth Pisani puts it.
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is the very definition of religious intolerance. Muslims who renounce Islam are executed. Its Salafist-Wahhabist official religion is a "brand of ultraconservative Islam [that] is nearly identical to that of the Islamic State," says William McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse.

The two are so similar that when the so-called Islamic State was looking for textbooks for schoolchildren in Syria, it printed copies of official Saudi textbooks it found online.
The barbaric punishments that Daesh hands out are the same as Saudi Arabia's religious penalties – death for homosexual acts, death by stoning for adultery, amputation of a hand for stealing, and so on.

And the Saudis think it's so good that they're busy exporting their religious ideology.
Professor Brahma Chellany of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi estimates that since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia has spent over $US200 billion ($266 billion) on "its global jihad project, including funding Wahhabi madrassas [Islamic schools], mosques, clerics and books.

Indonesia is one of the prime targets for the Saudi missionary project: "Wahhabist money going into Indonesia is one of the things that has started to undercut the traditional accommodating and syncretist view of Islam in Indonesia," says Allan Gyngell, former head of Australia's peak intelligence body, the Office of National Assessments, and former head of the Lowy Institute.

"In fact, it's been a far more dangerous trend, I think, than some of the things that have received more publicity, like some of the extremist groups such as al-Qaeda."
How? "These groups are very important in their own right, but the money going into the madrassas has been undercutting the foundation of Indonesian Islam, helping to reshape the conventional approaches to Islam in Indonesia. Young people won't turn out extremist, but they will have a more puritanical, less accommodating view of Islam. It is undermining pancasila, the thing that, from the beginning, has kept Indonesia together and been profoundly beneficial to Australia."

King Salman announced $US1 billion in social aid for Indonesia, including money for schools, and a $US6 billion injection into Indonesia's state-owned oil firm. He announced unlimited flights between the two countries. His most popular gift, however, was an extra 50,000 places a year for Indonesian pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca and Medina.  

The Saudis have been pressing for the tripling of the size of their Wahhabist university in Indonesia, which offers free tuition, and it is expected that Jakarta, reluctantly, will agree.
In the face of the Saudis' relentless, pernicious proselytising, what has Australia done? Cut its aid funding for Indonesian schools and more than halved the number of scholarships it offers to Indonesians to study in Australia.

Canberra needs to do a lot more than just revisit these cuts. Together with like-minded nations, it should work with the Indonesian government and institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to put together a long-term program to help Jakarta fund quality schools and universities.
That would be a golden escalator that would actually do some good for Indonesia so that it doesn't need to depend on Saudi money and the fundamentalist Islam that comes with it.

If this sounds a bit ambitious, like the postwar Marshall Plan that rebuilt a shattered Europe, it should be.
Indonesia is one of the Islamic world's greatest success stories. To leave its future to the influence of Riyadh would put our biggest neighbour in the hands of one of the Islamic world's most dangerous dead-ends.

Peter Harper is international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Newspaper

Western Australia’s welcome engagement in Asia has been a long time coming.

Mark McGowan can confidently put his ideas into action after Labor’s landslide victory in the March 11 WA state election. AAP/Aaron Bunch
The newly elected Western Australia premier, Mark McGowan, has appointed the state’s first minister for Asian engagement, Bill Johnston.

The appointment shows that McGowan’s administration understands how deeply embedded the state’s interests are in the Asian neighbourhood. Some of WA’s strongest economic and cultural advantages come from its proximity to Southeast Asia. The large multinationals headquartered in Perth tend either to have significant operations or be part-owned by companies in the region.
For example, Woodside is a major player in the regional oil and gas industry. The parent company of telecommunications provider Optus is Singapore communications group Singtel. Indonesia is also Western Australia’s largest export market for wheat.

In 2015, a WA Labor Party consultation paper, Asian Engagement: A Case for Whole-of-Government Approach, proposed the post of minister for Asian engagement. The report followed federal Labor’s 2012 White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century and was undertaken by the then shadow minister, Peter Tinley, to help WA Labor envision concrete actions to engage fully with Asia.

The whole-of-government approach has three key areas of emphasis:
1) Asia readiness: trade, investment and jobs
2) Asia relationships: government-to-government
3) Asia literacy: cultural networks.

Creating the new ministry was the report’s first and top recommendation. Among other things, the minister would focus on promoting WA trade and investment, identify opportunities for Western Australians to work in Asia, help with co-ordination, collaboration, information sharing and knowledge management across areas of Asia expertise and existing engagement activities within government and communities.
And, if the McGowan government follows the report’s recommendations, there will be a refreshing pivot away from China’s dominance of Australia’s engagement in Asia towards the closer neighbourhood of Southeast Asia. This makes good sense because, as the report says:
… by 2050, the combined economy of the ASEAN countries will be the fourth largest in the world.

Old Indonesia hand

Johnston is an old Indonesia hand and fluent in conversational Indonesian. He has been active in WA-Indonesia activities for many years. He sits on the board of the Balai Bahasa Indonesian teachers’ organisation.
As someone who has always been interested in and active in cross-cultural interactions, Johnston’s appointment is in stark contrast to the previous state Liberal government’s stance towards Indonesia.
In 2014, the government attempted to shut down the WA trade office in Jakarta after 22 years for want, according to then-premier Colin Barnett, of:
… the level of contact at the most senior level of business or, indeed, within the political system in Jakarta.
If not for industry consultation and passionate parliamentary discussion, the state would no longer have a trade office in Southeast Asia’s largest country.

Supported by voters

McGowan can confidently put his ideas into action after Labor’s landslide victory in the March 11 state election.
The 16% swing against the Liberals was attributed to their unpopular alliance with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and concerns about the two-term government’s management of the economy and major projects.
Labor now holds 41 of 59 seats in the WA parliament.

A positive shift towards diversity

To properly engage with the state’s neighbours requires Western Australians to have a better grasp of their own backyard. WA Labor has set off on the right foot by appointing Ben Wyatt as treasurer. Wyatt, a member of the Gidja tribe in Western Australia, has been shadow treasurer since 2008.

He won the cosmopolitan seat of Victoria Park by a huge margin, having held it since the Labor premier, Geoff Gallop, retired in 2006. Wyatt is capable, experienced and committed.
With one of the heaviest portfolios, combining the roles of treasurer, finance, energy and Aboriginal affairs, Wyatt will play a key role in government. His appointment heralds an important shift in challenging how Aboriginal people are perceived as economic managers within Australian colonial-settler society. The perception of Aboriginal people as less-than-competent managers continues to undermine Aboriginal land and cultural claims.

The McGowan government has shown it is prepared to adopt a more diverse, inclusive and culturally sensitive approach at home and abroad. Perhaps conversations with the neighbours will get beyond “boats, beef and Bali”, as Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, lamented at a forum in Perth last year.

In McGowan’s “cabinet for the times” lies hope that we will collectively revive the relationship with Asia that Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy described in her 2016 maiden parliamentary speech, where:
… cultural exchange both amongst clan groups within Australia and with people outside Australia was a natural part of life well before Captain Cook arrived in 1788.
There was already a thriving economic foreign trade occurring between Australia and with countries to our north. It is Aboriginal people who were the diplomats with foreign countries, the trading partners who shared knowledge and exchanged agriculture and marine sources of food and tools in the form of harpoons for hunting and knowledge of carving canoes to set sail in the unpredictable wet season seas.

Disclosure statement

Thor Kerr is affiliated with The Greens, and was a candidate for the seat of Riverton in the 2017 state election.
Susan Leong does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

This article originally appeared in 'The Conversation'.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Saudi King learns lessons from Indonesia

By  Nadirsyah Hosen

The recent visit of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, invites the question: what does his visit mean?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and King Salman bin Abdul Aziz pose with Indonesia's Muslim leaders at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia 2 March 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Adek Berry/Pool).

Saudi Arabia is home to the puritan Wahabi movement. Indonesia, on the other hand, is largely seen as adopting a moderate and tolerant version of Islam, and is often praised as one of the success stories of democratisation in the Muslim world. So did the Saudi King want to learn about democracy from Indonesia? Of course not. The King is custodian of two holy places — Mecca and Madina — and is therefore unlikely to publically seek out lessons from Indonesia’s version of Islam. But on an informal level, Indonesia’s government and Muslim scholars have taught the King some valuable lessons.

First, the warm greetings from the Indonesian cabinet included a welcome from Puan Maharani, the Coordinating Minister for Welfare, a senior member of President Joko Widodo’s cabinet and daughter of former president Megawati Soekarnoputri. While Saudi Arabia has taken an important step in appointing Norah al-Faiz as the first woman to enter the government’s elite as Vice Minister for Education, King Salman has much to learn from Indonesia’s relative progression. Indonesian women have not only served their nation as senior ministers, but also as the president.

During his visit, the King posed for a photo with Puan Maharani and Megawati Soekarnoputri. This photo inundated the headlines in the Indonesian and Saudi media. A Saudi woman could never do that with their own King — they are not even allowed to drive a car or show their face in public. This sends a powerful message that Muslim women in Indonesia enjoy a higher status and role than their Saudi Arabian counterparts.

A second lesson for the King was during a side trip to Bali. Bali is mostly made up of Hindus and has been shocked by two major Islamic terrorist attacks in the past. Despite these barriers, the Balinese warmly welcomed the King to their island and their Hindu culture.  This should send a powerful message of pluralism to the Middle East — people from different religious and cultural backgrounds can live side by side peacefully.

Another important question that arises from King Salman’s visit is whether Saudi Arabia’s image in Indonesia has recovered after the 2015 stampede at the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, which killed 129 Indonesians, and publicity about the mistreatment of Indonesian migrant workers. While the Saudi King and Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed 11 agreements on cooperation in sectors ranging from security to agriculture, both leaders avoided these more controversial questions.

While the King’s visit was considered a huge success by both governments, those angry about the mistreatment of Indonesian migrant workers and the Indonesian families waiting for compensation for the 2015 incident at the Hajj are still left wondering. The biggest achievements of the visit were the valuable lessons imparted on the King regarding pluralism and the position of women in Indonesia.

Nadirsyah Hosen is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Monash University. You can follow him on Twitter at @na_dirs.