Contemporary Indonesia has seen the simultaneous growth of social media technology and an increase in the popularity of public and online Islamic expressions of faith. No longer rooted solely to the country’s traditional pesantren and Islamic organisations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, Islamic learning – especially for the younger generation of digitally savvy urban graduates – has progressively utilised the medium of social and online media as a tool for religious debate.
This has taken many forms, such as mobile telephone study groups and the rise of online Islamic forums. It has also led to the rise of new entrepreneurial groups such as Yufid, formed in Yogyakarta in 2009, which are at the forefront of pioneering new social media platforms for Islamic learning.
The emergence of Yufid
The origins of the Yufid group lie in Yogyakarta’s Salafi movement and its supporters within the campus of Gadjah Madah University (UGM). As Claudia Nef has previously noted, UGM is home to a number of religious groups, often promoting ideas of faith as an answer to concerns of morality within the student populace. Salafism is one such strand. It follows a strict interpretation of Islam linked to religious scholars in Saudi Arabia and Yemen in order to emulate the Salaf as-Salih (interpreted as the first three generations of Muslims) in all aspects of one’s life. One’s behaviour, religious habits and social affiliations must, accordingly, be attributable to a rigid interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah (deeds, teachings and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad).
Salafism has grown considerably over the last 30 years since it made its initial inroads into Yogyakarta’s student community. Its growth is not without controversy, as many from Indonesia’s more established Islamic community deride them for trying to ‘erase’ Indonesian cultures. They nonetheless continue to expand by building new schools, publishing magazines and, importantly, creating industries such as Yufid. Yufid’s founders are all from UGM’s IT department, having met whilst attending Salafi campus lectures run by the al-Atsari Islamic Education Foundation (YPIA).
Upon graduating, these students expressed an interest in combining their religious zeal with their IT skills and so established Yufid in a small office seven kilometres north of central Yogyakarta. Their first project was the yufid.com search engine that provides potential followers with a search filter limited to approved Salafi sources. It operates a Google Custom Search Platform to comb across multiple sites that are part of an ever-increasing database of virtual Islamic sources whose ‘Salafi-ness’ can be confirmed by Yufid’s network of employees and associated preachers.
The group’s members make no short cuts in verifying content. Staff have spent years compiling their catalogue, beginning by creating a list of the most prominent preachers, foundations and magazines and then asking these sources for further recommendations and suggestions. This is necessary to ensure the credibility of the site. As an original member of Yufid stated, ‘if we do not know who (an author is), we then reference from his students or from another ustadz (preacher) who already knows him. There are preachers who make new sites, whom we do not know, and so we ask which foundations they have links to’.
Over the past six years, Yufid has extended its online presence to include a further 14 websites and 15 mobile phone or iPad applications that can be downloaded from iTunes or Google Play. It alleges to have had 4.4 million visits across its sites and 900,000 combined Twitter and Facebook followers. Aside from the abovementioned yufid.com, it is perhaps the addition of social media applications that are driving its growth. Users can now download content from Yufid’s online TV channel (Yufid.tv) and even ask questions directly to Salafi preachers via their Tanya Ustadz (Ask an Ustadz) application – both available for iPhone, iPad and Android.
For example, Tanya Ustadz is an interactive and free program that allows users to post questions anonymously to Yufid affiliated preachers, who then respond on the application’s public interface. Questions are not limited to a purely religious nature but relate to socio-political or personal queries. For instance, one reader stated that a non-Muslim in his office was donating zakat (tax and redistribution) and wondered whether, given his lack of Islamic faith, this was allowed. Ustadz Ammi Nur Baits, who is a full-time employee of Yufid as well as a religious scholar, answered that zakat from non-believers was not to be received.
While Tanya Ustadz does not intend to replace face-to-face contact between preachers and their followers, it underlines how people can come to engage with the movement both instantly and anonymously. It has allowed potential followers an easy way to seek instant guidance over issues that they may otherwise ignore or would not have the confidence to ask about in person. However, perhaps more significantly it underlines a fundamental shift in how people have come to engage with their religion and the huge range of new products created to service such needs.
Social media has further altered concepts of da’wa (religious propagation) as such mediums cannot distinguish between acknowledged followers, lax Muslims, or even non-Muslims. This is unlike the religious lectures provided by preachers within mosques, who adapt their sermons and style to take into account the level of piety of their audience. Moreover, the use of social media cannot restrict religious content to a specific gender or social milieu – as is often the case with face-to-face religious lectures. Instead, for Yufid the primary targets are urban, digitally aware individuals, whose ability to access technology (and utilise it to provide feedback) generally exceeds their understanding of religious texts.
The use of social media and creation of new religious mobile phone applications is a phenomenon not limited to Yufid. Rather, it is representative of the broader popularity of Islamic commodities and social media in Indonesia. Nonetheless, Yufid provides insight into the thought behind the development of such trends. According to Yufid’s founders, the growth of religious social media does not follow any pre-conceived strategy or plan. It must rely on the resources available at a given time and the input of employees who must constantly monitor products as well as the wider debates and fashions within society. As one founder put it, ‘we are not an organization, but can suddenly move ourselves to a certain flow... this is called a community’.
With one or two exceptions, the group consists predominantly of IT specialists and not Islamic scholars. In order to provide accurate religious content they must build linkages to preachers willing to help them with religious oversight. Many such relationships rely on Yufid's previously established associations formed through the YPIA, but are in no way pre-ordained; preachers are often too busy or simply uninterested in assisting the group. Those who are willing to assist Yufid tend to be in their late 20s or early 30s and technologically savvy themselves. They do not come from the ‘older’ generations of preachers who were actively propagating the movement during the Suharto era.
Yufid’s expansion is also influenced by the use of tools such as Google Analytics (as 65 per cent of their traffic comes from Google searches) and iTunes store in order to monitor downloads and comments in relation to their products. Through this process they are able to tailor their message, adapt their sites to specific search criteria sought by users, and build new applications in line with feedback.
Although the group originally focused on an Indonesian audience, they have noticed that many of their applications – especially those aimed at teaching Arabic and Islamic principles to children – have been downloaded by people residing in Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, Germany and the US. Several of these downloaders requested applications in English and so the group has created a number of multilingual platforms, as is the case with its MuslimDua application that teaches children the different religious statements one is meant to make over the course of a day in Arabic, English and Indonesian.
They have also launched two English language sites (www.whatisquran.com and www.syaria.com) in order to reach out to this global English-speaking audience – although the majority of this content is Google-translated from Indonesian articles.
Such sites underscore Yufid’s growing global ambition, but it would be incorrect to think of it as a global operation. Their reliance on local preachers, the recruitment of IT students from Yogyakarta and donations from local supporters all point to a dependence on uniquely Indonesian experiences. Yufid is rather part of a local vanguard of new cyber-activism, exemplifying both the adaptability of religious propagation to modern technological advancements and a growing enthusiasm for it at UGM. Their online media applications and websites may be accessible throughout the world, but cannot be decoupled from Islamic mobilisation inside Indonesia.
Chris Chaplin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sociologist and researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KITLV). He has previously examined Islamic propagation amongst Yogyakarta’s Salafi movement and is currently conducting research into concepts and practices of citizenship amongst Muslim activists in South Sulawesi.
Inside Indonesia 125: Jul-Sep 2016