Photo by Sinemart.

Porridge Seller Goes on the Hajj (Tukang Bubur Naik Haji) was one of Indonesia’s most popular soap operas, recording more than 2,000 episodes between 2011 and 2017. Image by SinemArt.


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. 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” 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 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 Classpublished by Palgrave MacMillan.


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


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