Attendees at a Hijrahfest ‘Roadshow’ event in Medan, North Sumatra, in 2019. Photo by Septianda Perdana for Antara.

After holding successful events in 2018 and 2019, “born again” Muslim and former MTV VJ Arie Untung and his team had big plans for “Hijrahfest” in Surabaya from 14-16 October 2022.

Hijrahfest markets itself as a gathering for adherents of the booming hijrah movement in Indonesia. Hijrah refers to the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. But in Indonesia, the hijrah trend typically refers to nominal Muslims adopting (or ‘migrating to’) more pious ways of living. Followers of the movement usually wear Islamic attire, and often pepper their conversations with Islamic words to emphasise their Muslimness.

Celebrities like Arie Untung, Teuku Wisnu, Irwansyah, Dude Herlino, Dimas Seto, Natta Reza and Mario Irwinsyah, have been prominent backers of the movement, and regularly publicise their shift to more conservative interpretations of Islam to their millions of followers on social media.

The 2022 Hijrahfest was supposed to mark the return of in-person activities after Covid-19 forced the festival online in 2020 and 2021. Entrance tickets were sold out, and small merchants selling halal lifestyle products were already gathered at the East Java convention centre, Jatim Expo.

But one day before the event, Hijrahfest was cancelled.

The event was called off following major protests from senior figures from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), including Akh Muzaki, the secretary of NU East Java, and Ahsanul Haq, a NU East Java deputy leader and head of the East Java branch of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI).

They complained that NU and MUI logos had been used in publicity materials for the event without permission. Akh Muzaki also expressed concern that the event would feature appearances from Islamic preachers who were previously members of the banned Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). He said HTI had espoused views inconsistent with the state ideology Pancasila and the concept of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI).

This problem could have been resolved by better communication between Arie Untung’s team and NU East Java leaders. Indeed, Arie Untung quickly realised his mistake and made a public apology to NU and MUI. He claimed his team had been in ongoing discussions with NU and MUI but admitted their logos had been used before formal approval was secured.

This ethical lapse from organisers, while unprofessional, seems somewhat out of step with the strident rejection of the event from these senior NU figures. A more likely explanation is that the mainstream NU feels threatened by the growing significance of the more conservative hijrah movement.

The growth of the Indonesian middle class and the rise in social media use has provided fertile ground for a surge in interest for Islamic lifestyles. Preachers like Hanan Attaki, Handy Bonnie, Evie Effendi, Abdul Somad, and Adi Hidayat have capitalised on this, attracting massive followings of young Muslims by taking a pop culture approach to propagating Islamic teachings (da’wa). This kind of approach is particularly popular among adherents of the hijrah movement and young urban Muslims, who seek clear directives on what is permissible (halal) and prohibited (haram) in their everyday lives.

These preachers are not closely affiliated with Indonesia’s mainstream Islamic organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah, and typically promote more conservative interpretations of Islam. Some, such as Hanan Attaki, Abdul Somad and Adi Hidayat, have graduated from Islamic universities in the Middle East, and draw on their educational backgrounds to attract their audience.

At the same time as witnessing a rise in new religious influencers, Indonesia has also seen other conservative movements grow in strength, including HTI, Salafi-influenced groups, and the Tarbiyah movement. Although they have different religious orientations, they have all challenged the dominance of mainstream groups like NU. Conservative activists from these groups have actively recruited new followers from university campuses. In addition, some Salafi-linked groups – backed in part by funds from Saudi Arabia – have established Islamic education institutions in areas of Central Java, East Java and South Sulawesi, further expanding the Salafi movement’s base.

Historically, the traditionalist NU has dominated regional areas of Java, particularly East and Central Java. Most of their preachers favour older-style approaches to da’wa, involving deep exploration of Islamic texts. A sign of NU’s ongoing influence in some regional areas is the emergence of tensions at the grassroots between NU members and Salafi groups, and the recent rejection of visits by conservative preachers Hanan Attaki and Felix Siauw to some parts of East Java.

But many other Indonesian Muslims would be happy to invite these new conservative preachers to their regions. And NU leaders clearly view them as a formidable threat to their authority.

This tension will continue to grow as the digital divide narrows. A 2019 survey by the Indonesian Internet Providers Association (APJII) found that internet penetration was 74.1% in urban areas and 61.6% in rural areas (this is the most recent year for which an urban-rural breakdown is available). Increasing internet penetration could well see further shifts in religious authority at the regional level.

In any case, NU’s efforts to shut down Hijrahfest appear to have backfired. Yes, the strong statements from senior NU figures forced the effective cancellation of Hijrahfest. But it has also galvanised followers of the hijrah movement. Hijrahfest’s Instagram account, for example, has been flooded with expressions of support from followers, many of whom have framed the cancellation as a test or lesson on the pathway to ‘true’ Islam.

NU has long enjoyed a close relationship with the political elite, and has become used to exerting a degree of influence and power over the Indonesian Muslim community. Rather than treating these new Islamic authorities as the enemy, NU should reflect on why it is struggling to attract the interest of young Muslims. NU clearly needs to adjust its approach so that it is more reflective of young Muslims’ tastes and lifestyles.

Instead of seeking to muzzle these new religious authorities, NU should consider working with them more closely. NU is one of the oldest religious organisations in Indonesia and has an immense wealth of Islamic knowledge and experience. NU leaders should be using these assets to encourage these new religious influencers to be more accepting of Indonesia’s diverse faith communities and, in particular, traditional understandings of Islam.

, ,

We acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the lands upon which our campuses are situated.

Phone:13 MELB (13 6352) | International: +(61 3) 9035 5511
The University of Melbourne ABN:84 002 705 224
CRICOS Provider Code:00116K (visa information)