Sincerity, Scandal, and the State: Islam and Media in Post-authoritarian Indonesia

By James B. Hoesterey, Emory University

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Islam, Islamists, and the Media in a Changing Middle East workshop held at George Washington University on October 28, 2016.

Islamists’ calculated use of media and their evolving relationship with different media forms is not unique to the Middle East. After decades of strict censorship and restrictions on religious programming during the New Order regime of former president Suharto (1965-1998), Indonesia experienced a massive privatization and proliferation of television media following his ouster (Sen and Hill 2006). Within a couple years, nearly every TV channel featured Islamic sermons, soap operas, and recitation contests. In the process, K.H. Abdullah Gymnastiar – known popularly as “Aa Gym” – became Indonesia’s (indeed, one of the world’s) most famous Muslim televangelist. He positioned himself as an exemplar of public piety and branded himself as the embodiment of the modern Muslim man – pious preacher, shrewd entrepreneur, and doting family man (Hoesterey 2016). Aa Gym capitalized on the aura of media technologies and the ideals of Islamic ethics to appeal to the aspirations of middle-class Muslims in search of piety and prosperity. He offered hope in an uncertain time.

Aa Gym and Ninih Mutmainnah share the secrets of a happy family. Photo by author.

Aa Gym built his brand around the image of doting husband and loving family man. He serenaded his wife on live TV, shared their secrets of a happy marriage, and scolded husbands who could not control their anger. With “one foot in the future” (Lambek 2013, 273), Aa Gym was a harbinger for the promises of religious revival and Islamic ethics, of digital technologies and capital accumulation, of personal fortune and family bliss. Then, at the pinnacle of his popularity, a secret went public and Aa Gym suffered a dramatic fall from public grace and his television empire crumbled. In this essay, I consider the rise and fall of a celebrity preacher to examine the prominence, and precarity, of Islamist media in Indonesian politics.

Summoning the State: Pornography, Politicians, and Pop Preachers

In his early years in the national limelight, Aa Gym was eager to parlay his television pulpit into political capital. He was adept at capitalizing on his stardom to broaden his network among the religious, financial, and political elite. Whereas Indonesian politicians are accustomed to using religion for political ends (Buehler 2016), Aa Gym was intent on using politics for religious ends (Anderson 1977). He carefully cultivated connections with state officials and media executives, and leveraged these relationships to mobilize both corporate and popular support for his moral crusades against pornography and sexual vice.

Hurry Up and Kiss Me! (Buruan Cium Gue)

On August 18, 2004 Aa Gym went to Indonesia’s Film Censor Board to protest the release of the teen romantic comedy Hurry Up and Kiss Me!. Aa Gym claimed that his goal was “not to judge, but to request further clarification about how the censor board could have possibly approved the film.” Aa Gym disciplined the state indirectly by inviting state officials to fulfill their roles as moral guardians. He summoned state officials to protect public ethics by banning the film. During the press conference that followed (also organized by Aa Gym, standing shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Din Syamsudin, then-leader of Indonesia’s modernist Islamic organization Muhammadiyah and Indonesian Council of Ulama), he derided the film as a vulgar affront to national morality:

The title alone. Excuse me, but that is just vulgar. It’s bold because it encourages kissing outside the context of marriage. Don’t we all know for ourselves that is not good behavior? … Based on what I understand about Islam, kissing outside of marriage is one aspect of improper sexual relations (zinah). So, actually I would say that the title should be ‘OK, Hurry up and zinah me.’

His political quest was not about bodily discipline or an Islamic caliphate but about encouraging state actors to use Islamic ethics to safeguard the nation. Shortly after Aa Gym’s public summoning, the censorship board revoked their authorization, banning the film from theaters.

“Moral Terrorism”
“The Hullabaloo of Playboy Indonesia”

After this early success in the politics of public piety, Aa Gym began to hone his skills in the art of summoning – and shaming – state officials. When the inaugural Indonesian edition of Playboy magazine was about to be published, Aa Gym was invited to provide congressional testimony about the moral perils of pornography. On the following Sunday, Aa Gym invited President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to be the special guest on his live television sermon at the national mosque, Istiqlal, part of a new segment called “heart to heart.” Aa Gym summoned SBY to speak about his personal views on pornography and to articulate the role of the state as moral vanguard of the nation. SBY was eager to publicize his friendship with Aa Gym and frame the work of the state in terms of sincere religious duty. The brief excerpt below gives a sense of how both Aa Gym and SBY use the public pulpit for their own political purposes.

Aa Gym: Earlier, I was speaking with some of the community here… the silent majority, who do not have much of a voice in the media, cannot write in the newspapers, and cannot speak in the legislature building. But their heart moans just the same when they see things that disturb the future of the younger generation. I believe that Mr. President is also disturbed by this [Playboy magazine]? What do you think, Mr. President?

I consider it very dangerous, a big threat to our nation, for future generations. Aa Gym, for a long while I have stirred up discussion and declared war on things like this: pornography, pornoaksi, sadism, mystical programming that goes too far, drugs and other such things… Because of this, at the recent meeting of the Association of Indonesian Journalists, Aa Gym you also attended, I asked the press and mass media to help, to not add to the vice in this country. Isn’t that the spirit of amar maruf nahi munkar [Indonesian from the Arabic: enjoining virtue, forbidding vice], to battle against vice? Everyone, not just the president, not just Aa Gym, not just cabinet members and governors, but every group must join in safeguarding the nation. This nation will wage war on pornography. God-willing it will succeed.

Eager to cloak himself in the language of Islamic ethics, President SBY played his part in the public theatrics of moral politics. At that moment in his political career, SBY was losing support from Islamist political parties and the pornography debate provided a chance to demonstrate his Islamic credentials. SBY also described his role and the work of the state through Islamic idioms of personal and public piety: the presidency was a noble trusteeship (amanah), his work was worship (ibadah), and his heart was sincere (ikhlas). In SBY’s reckoning, statecraft is a religious practice. Aa Gym, in turn, carefully crafted his theological argument about pornography and shame, situated it within the diverse moral problems confronting the nation, and leveraged his personal relationship with President SBY.

SBY waving flag at Aa Gym’s 10-K Run, photo by author
Aa Gym on live TV at Istiqlal mosque, photo by author

Aa Gym reminded state actors once again that they, too, were being watched. In doing so, he reversed the political optics of the classic Foucauldian panopticon in which the unseen state constantly watches its citizens (Nugent 2011). Aa Gym’s disciplining of the state is not a public scolding per se, but rather a public summoning for state authorities to embody an explicitly Islamic ethics. Or, to invoke Louis Althusser (1972, 174-175), we could say that Aa Gym “interpellated” state officials to embody an Islamic ethics on the public stage. However, by the time the anti-pornography bill became law in 2008, Aa Gym had fallen from grace and lost the public pulpit from which to summon the state.

Sincerity and Scandal: Islamist Media and Islamists in the Media

Islamist groups’ strategic use of media is only part of the story of the media landscape in Indonesia. The post-authoritarian moment of hope and aspiration that allowed for Aa Gym’s rise to fame soon gave way to a renewed cynicism about Islamist politics and public proclamations of personal piety. Digital skeptics have challenged such professed piety, sincerity, and authenticity – especially when those Islamic icons find themselves embroiled in scandal.

When Aa Gym’s female followers learned that he had secretly married a second wife, they took to the streets in protest, publicly shredded his photographs, and boycotted his products and programs. Even though most women attested to the permissibility of polygamy in Islam, they felt betrayed by what they viewed as his insincerity and inauthenticity as a family man. Subsequently, television executives cancelled his contracts, politicians like President SBY kept their distance, and investors pulled out of his business enterprises. After the story broke, Aa Gym held a press conference with his first wife, Ninih. As she explained to reporters that she gave her sincere permission for the marriage, a tear streamed down her cheek. For weeks on end, Aa Gym’s downfall played out on the very same television channels that ushered in his rise.

Aa Gym’s rise and fall mirrors the fortune and fate of the PKS (Justice and Prosperous Party), the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired party that enjoyed popularity in the early 2000s yet never gained significant electoral support. In the aftermath of disclosures of widespread corruption and massive state violence during Suharto’s authoritarian rule, PKS leadership branded their political party as clean (bersih), free from the moral ills of public corruption and personal vice. In a quest for political power, PKS traded on this image. And, like Aa Gym, the real fell short of the ideal. Indonesians took a certain delight in public revelations of immorality among PKS elite, whom they referred to pejoratively as “holier than thou” hypocrites (sok suci). The fall of PKS politicians was characterized not just as immoral, but insincere. From the private and personal to the public and political, these Islamists were now the objects of a moral-political gaze.

President Obama’s first official visit to Indonesia in 2010 was broadcast live on national television. Political choreographers were eager to capitalize on the homecoming of Indonesia’s adopted son. Tifatul Sembiring, former chair of PKS and then Minister of Communication and Information, frequently cited ethical comportment for routinely refusing to shake hands with Indonesian women. But during Obama’s official welcoming line at the state palace, Sembiring smiled giddily as he greeted Michelle Obama with a double-clasped handshake.Prominent female journalist Uni Lubis immediately chided Sembiring via Twitter for his apparent double standard: “How is it that Tifatul can shake Michelle Obama’s hand, but he doesn’t want to shake hands with [Indonesian] women?” With over one million Twitter followers, Sembiring tweeted his defense, blaming the “inadvertent” contact on Michelle Obama: “I was holding back my two hands, but then Michelle placed her hands way in front and [my hand] was inadvertently touched. [Then] @unilubis got offended J.” Lubis retweeted that video footage suggested otherwise. The video soon appeared on YouTube and was reposted on social media. Within hours, activists, politicians, and even porn stars stirred up a media campaign to challenge Sembiring’s claims to sincerity and authenticity. In just days, the controversy appeared on The Colbert Report.

Courtesy of political cartoonist Fonda Lapod

Other high-ranking PKS officials also found themselves embroiled in ethical scandal. In April 2011, critics of the religious elite took great joy in reports that PKS politician Arifinto – a vocal advocate for the anti-pornography bill – was allegedly photographed watching pornography on his laptop during a session of the DPR. One critic re-inscribed the acronym PKS with the unflattering words “The Sex Work Party” (Partai Karya Seks). Although Arifinto claimed he did not know the sender and he immediately closed the file, the photographer responded that Arifinto actually took time to dust off the screen for a better view. Once again in 2013 Indonesians expressed a mix of horror and pleasure when former PKS chair Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq was sentenced to 16 years in prison for corruption charges in a kickback scheme involving beef imports. PKS’s detractors used digital and social media to challenge political authority and religious authenticity by once again re-inscribing the PKS acronym with the

“Corruption and Prosperity Party” (Partai Korupsi Sejahtera)

Conclusion: When media is a two way street

Indonesian Islamists have adeptly deployed media technologies to promote public piety, brand political parties, and “socialize the state” (Bayat 2007). At the same time, however, others have used media to challenge the purported piety of Islamic icons and Islamist politicians. As Karen Strassler astutely observes: “Political communications thus travel from medium to medium in a complex traffic, taking on, at each remediation, distinctive forms of address, authority, and authorship. Unruly processes of reception and reinvention… have thus become an integral feature of contemporary Indonesian political communication.” (2009, 95). So, whereas Islamist politicians and pop preachers continue to use digital and social media to promote their grand visions of public piety, so too do their detractors turn to humor and visual culture to capture what they view as the hypocrisy behind the Islamist project. The scandals of Aa Gym and PKS also point to a different sort of political Islam, a moral politics of pop culture not easily reduced to electoral politics or visions of a global caliphate.

How might we understand the phenomenon of Aa Gym? What are the historical precedents? Is there a typology of popular preachers that fits across the diverse political and economic contexts of Muslim societies worldwide? As historian Jonathan Berkey (2001) observes, popular preachers have a long history in Muslim religious and political life. My colleagues in this collection (especially Yasmin Moll and Walter Armbrust) look to the ways in which Muslims themselves refer to the “New Preachers” in Egypt, even if there are precedents in earlier decades of the Islamic Revival (as Aaron Rock-Singer discerns in his contribution). In Indonesia, this genre of popular preachers is often referred to as “celebrity preachers” (Ustad Seleb), and those targeting youth are known as “Hip Preachers” (Ustad Gaul). Another colleague in this collection, Tuve Floden, suggests that we refer to these preachers as “Media Preachers” to include their diverse uses of print, broadcast, digital, and social media. However, in Indonesia and elsewhere, more orthodox religious leaders also circulate their image and politics through digital and social media, yet such preachers are not considered “celebrity preachers” and certainly not “hip preachers.” As the rise and fall of Aa Gym suggests, these celebrity preachers are not epiphenomena of media technologies as much as they are mediated brands that articulate a particular vision of the future and resonate with the anxieties and desires of the middle class.

The most remarkable dimension of Aa Gym’s celebrity appeal is precisely his personal branding as the embodiment of the “cutting edge of modernity” (Hoesterey 2012). As my Indonesianist colleagues and I have argued elsewhere (Barker, Lindquist, et. al. 2009), such figures of modernity in Indonesia “seek to mediate what they believe to be the new sources of power… Islam, technology, and capital. They position themselves not as leaders, but as experts, exemplars, and facilitators of vast empires of self-improvement.” And as the rise and fall of Aa Gym and PKS suggest, such figures of modernity also run the risk of being cast as insincere charlatans more concerned with worldly riches than heavenly redemption. The privatization and proliferation of media technologies might explain the emergence of this genre of popular preachers across diverse Muslim societies today. However, to comprehend the fall of specific preachers like Aa Gym (and political parties like PKS) requires a better understanding of how, and to what extent, their personal brands and exemplary authority resonate with competing visions of Islamist politics and Muslim modernity.

Works Cited

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Hoesterey, James B.

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