Written by Maurisa Zinira
The development of Islam in Indonesia shows various trends over time. These changes are influenced, among other things, by the encounter of religion with politics and the market. Though Islam was marginalized from the economic and political sphere in the 1980s, it showed a radical turn in the 1990s, in which it began to shift the market and even redirected Indonesian politics towards political Islam. This change cannot be separated from the economic liberalization in Southeast Asia that usurped the hegemony of the New Order. Through the commercialization of television media, the contestation of various Islamic discourses is hardened and perpetuated in various spiritually nuanced shows that became the entertainment commodity of the Indonesian Muslim community.
The development of Islam through television has attracted the attention of Inayah Rakhmani, who wrote Mainstreaming Islam in Indonesia: Television, Identity and Middle Class. At the 7th Reading in Social Science forum on July 29, 2022 entitled “Indonesian Islam: Television, Identity and Middle Class”, Rakhmani presented some of the findings of her book, accompanied by Hikmat Darmawan—vice chair of the Jakarta Arts Council—and Moch Fakhruroji –lecturer at UIN Sunan Gunung Jati— as discussants.
The Middle Class and Indonesian TV Industry
The middle class in Rakhmani’s book refers to a social class that benefited from the development-based social transformation of the New Order. This middle class grew rapidly in big cities in the early 1990s and is characterized by high consumption patterns, leisure, greater attention to education as the main mechanism for securing position and wealth, and strong desire for legal certainty and open access to information. Their purchasing power was arguably high enough to encourage the state and capital owners to co-opt their social power for political and market resilience.
The growth of the Islamic middle class coupled with this kind of industrial capitalism, according to Rakhmani, cannot be separated from the historical context of democratization and market-based economic growth. In Indonesia, this growth coincides with changes in the economic control of the state. Through a series of REPELITA (Five-Year Development Plans), the New Order government launched various programs that mainstreamed a state ideology oriented towards developmentalism and uniformity of thought through a unifying national identity. In this effort, the government controlled the national education and information industries, such as television, to strengthen their political hegemony. Religious shows are more likely to accommodate a modernized centralistic framework of thinking through the state paradigm. TVRI as a state television station, for example, continues to produce religious shows that focus on displaying religious and cultural diversity that were in line with the stability of the country.
However, with the economic liberalization that occurred in the early 1990s, the New Order government began to adjust to the free market. Through deregulation and de-bureaucratization, the government began to allow more foreign investment and the privatization of manufacturers and services. It was in these years that the Indonesian media also began to open to private competition which caused a change of ownership that further affected the content that was broadcasted. Although the New Order government still controlled the flow of information, especially through the national curriculum and media censorship, it is undeniable that the state’s dominance began to be rivaled by the strong middle-class power that formed the structure of consumerism captured by the market. The private media tried to accommodate this consumption need by creating new markets through imported programs.
Unfortunately, the media’s policy of importing programs from outside Indonesia was criticized by the Islamic middle class who preferred to consume locally broadcasted content. They wanted Islamic content in their daily consumption of TV products. Consequently, to minimize the risk of disappointment for this largest segment of the market, several TV stations began to provide more space for Islamic broadcasts. Even with low production costs, such as the Maghrib call to prayer and several programs that feature clerics to bridge the market and consumers, this strategy has proven to be able to increase the rating of their shows.
Islamic Shows and the Rise of Islamism
In the television industry, Islamic shows are made to manage business risks. Businesspeople are aware that Islamic packaging has a commercial value that is in demand from various social strata. It is often used by political elites who use the market to recruit constituents. According to Rakhmani, the middle class that consumes Islamic symbols through these shows tends to be conservative in values but liberal in market mindset. So it is not surprising that they want protection of the values they believe in the media they consume.
In line with that, the media tries to maintain their position by replicating programs with high ratings to minimize the risk of loss. As a result, the broadcast content tends to have uniformity and have a delivery standard. Thus, although Rakhmani said that television has become a kind of ‘dakwah supermarket’ where TV viewers can choose products based on their spiritual and pragmatic needs, available content tends to adopt the same production paradigm geared towards ratings. TV stations are not ready to face the risk of leaving the safe TV structure that has been formed. They prefer to elude broadcasting controversial issues that possibly make their middle-class Muslim viewers (as their loyal customers) uncomfortable to avoid declining broadcast ratings.
Undeniably, this mode of production and consumption in the television industry leads to urban religious trends that move around the market system. Moch Fakhruroji, as discussant in the forum, explained that television both structures and is structured by society and/or culture. He gave an example that in the 1990s, soap operas (sinetron) gave rise to a variety of hijab fashion with the hijab brand following the name of the main character, such as Hana’s hijab because the main character was named Hana. But television media is also structured by the culture. With people using television for entertainment and relaxation, program names also no longer seem formal. If the New Order state television produced religious programs with titles that clearly represented the content, such as “Mimbar Agama Islam”, now the program names are made to follow popular trends such as “Damai Indonesiaku” or “Mamah dan Aa”, not indicating a religious label. It is through these kinds of television programs that religious ideology is mainstreamed. Urban people looking for spectacle to just fill their leisure time often take the information they receive from figures on television seriously. The problem is that celebrity clerics are often considered less authoritative in Islamic scholarship.
Hikmat Darmawan—the deputy chairman of the Jakarta Arts Council who was present as a discussant—says that the mainstreaming Islam in the media has also changed the landscape of actual sites being filled with religious symbols. In office and business areas, for example, the need for religious spaces is increasing. This type of middle-class office demands the presence of religion in their actual lives in the work environment by inviting celebrity clerics who have tremendous influence on the congregation. Generally, according to Darmawan, they are invited with technical considerations due to popularity and availability. But, this type of ustadz who was born from the womb of the television industry is often considered less authoritative in conveying religious views because apart from their tendency to be self-taught, their logic of thinking also follows the logic of the market. Compared to religious figures who have studied at Islamic boarding schools for years, these ustadz are better known and have an image that fits the urban middle-class lifestyle. Rather than producing in-depth understandings of Islam, this kind of program continues the circle of commercialism which is increasingly making room for a stronger formation of Islamic commodity consumers to welcome the new market.
The ideology of Islamism is increasingly gaining space and providing a stronger structure not only for markets that monetize their piety, but also for political Islam that seeks opportunities from the social forces of the middle class. Rakhmani argues that the market mechanism is actually quite secular and does not move at all to represent a particular religion; however, it has a political impact on the religious model in the public sphere and affects the deliberation of democracy. The effect has been seen in the rise of identity politics in recent years. The understanding of Islam produced by celebrity clerics, commodified by the market, and exploited by political elites gave rise to an Islamic political explosion that fought Islam with national ideology.
Dealing with such an urban middle-class, who fill their leisure time with Islamic shows, are the nationalist groups who feel restless with the strengthening of religious conservatism in the national media. According to them, the recent strengthening of Islamism has created its own threat to plurality that must be responded to by prioritizing television shows that emphasize diversity.
Lastly, the three speakers agree that such an ideo-political debate in our mediascape is unavoidable. Especially with the growth of new media (social media platforms) that is more accessible to all levels of society, contestation and offers of new ideas are increasingly possible. Contestation is important to democracy. Meanwhile, censorship hinders its deliberation. Therefore, since market power that meet various political and religious interests will continue to find new contestation and socialization spaces for religious expressions, it is important to open access to public debate and engagement to expose plural discourses and ideologies for dialogue for a better democracy.