The rise, fall, and re-branding of a celebrity preacher
James B Hoesterey
This ‘modern ulama’ co-pilots an F-5 Tiger fighter jet
Kyai Haji Abdullah Gymnastiar, the charismatic television preacher known affectionately as Aa Gym, captured the hearts of millions of Indonesians with his humorous sermons, trademark sorban (turban) and self-help message of ‘Manajemen Qolbu’ (Managing the Heart). He transformed himself into a religious celebrity, Indonesian icon, and Islamic name brand. Millions of viewers watched his weekly television shows; hundreds of thousands made pilgrimages to his Islamic school; and politicians of all leanings lined up for photo-ops during campaign season.
In 2006, several political parties quietly courted Gymnastiar to run as their vice presidential candidate in 2009. According to their polling data, Gymnastiar was the most adored Indonesian, with a 91 per cent national approval rating that traversed political, economic and religious divides. These ratings trumped current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and far exceeded other pop culture icons of Islam. Then, at the pinnacle of his public adoration, Gymnastiar took the path of polygamy. Everything changed.
Heartbroken and betrayed, his followers staged a backlash and the event became a national scandal. Infotainment shows and gossip magazines circulated stories of female followers who shredded his pictures, boycotted his television shows, and cancelled weekend pilgrimages to his Islamic school and ‘spiritual tourism’ complex, Daarut Tauhiid (DT). Pressured by hundreds of protest text messages, SBY ordered a review of the national marriage law. Gymnastiar lost his pending television contracts; his business empire started to crumble, and DT became a ghost town.
Spiritual marketer and self-help guru
A number of factors account for Gymnastiar’s rise to fame. These include the Islamic revival in Indonesia (which has been accompanied by increased outward displays of piety), urbanisation, and the rise of the Muslim middle class. At the same time, Aa Gym’s growth in prominence has been facilitated by a marked increase in Islamic television programming, and the expanding influence of self-help psychology on the Islamic publishing industry.
Aa Gym marketed himself as a religious celebrity, Indonesian icon, and Islamic name brand
Gymnastiar’s personal attributes, intangible charisma, and marketing acumen set him apart from other popular religious leaders. He preached a simple message, favored everyday anecdotes over deeper theological interpretation and could move his audience from laughter to tears. He knew the religion market, understood his niche, and marketed himself as an Islamic self-help guru. This synthesis of marketing and propagation transformed Manajemen Qolbu into a name brand, a sorban into a trademark and Aa Gym into a religious commodity.
Gymnastiar represents a shift away from traditional forms of religious authority in Indonesia. For example, he asks his followers to call him ‘Aa Gym’ (older brother Gym). When the young television preacher Yusuf Mansur respectfully referred to Gymnastiar as ‘Pak Kyai’ (a Javanese title used for a religious leader, scholar and teacher) during a televised conversation, Gymnastiar replied by saying, ‘I’m just an ‘Aa’, I'm not even an ustad (teacher of religion) yet.’
This image of a simple preacher in touch with ordinary Indonesians appeals to an emerging Islamic demographic: professional urban Muslims with minimal traditional religious education. His public image also appealed to a burgeoning religious self-help market that desires success in both this life and the hereafter. His VCD biography casts him as a modern ulama (religious scholar) who runs several businesses, goes sky-diving with Indonesian special forces, and flies fighter jets with the air force - all while wearing his trademark sorban. Gymnastiar’s preaching style alternates between stories of his own rags-to-riches success and tips on how to build a keluarga sakinah (harmonious family).
Gymnastiar developed an arsenal of MQ acronyms for personal and business success (3 M’s, 5 S’s, 7B’s to name a few), appealing to his target market of urban professionals. At the same time, to his majority female following (who comprised approximately 75 per cent at any sermon), Gymnastiar became the fantasy of family harmony and religious redemption. This approach solidified his niche in a rapidly expanding self-help market of broadcast television, book publishing, and corporate training. Gymnastiar transformed the public’s belief in his brand into moral authority and a formidable self-help business. This would prove to be a double-edged sword.
Polygamy and moral reasoning
Aa Gym, Ninih, and Rini nervously prepare for their first photo-op together
Gymnastiar’s popularity plummeted after the news that he had taken a second wife. Television contracts were pulled, his business ventures suffered, and visitors to Daarut Tauhiid dropped by over 80 per cent. Media reports and infotainment shows compared Gymnastiar to others who had fallen from public grace after a polygamous marriage.
Indonesians are decidedly against polygamy. A recent survey (unrelated to Gymnastiar’s case) showed that approximately 75 per cent of Indonesian women and 50 per cent of Indonesian men disagree with the practice. A general public distaste for polygamy does not, however, fully explain the backlash against Gymnastiar. Nor do these statistics offer insights into why other polygamous Muslim leaders have not experienced such public condemnation.
My research indicates that the public disapproval of Aa Gym was not related to conflicting interpretations of Qur’anic teachings regarding polygamy per se. In fact, almost all of the two hundred or so people I interviewed acknowledged the permissibility of polygamy in Islam. Rather, the backlash for the most part related to the public image that Aa Gym cultivated of himself and to the fact that he was a public figure.
To his female followers, Aa Gym’s polygamy was inconsistent with his public image as a virtuous husband at the head of a keluarga sakinah. For them, the messages he preached in his sermons were not consistent with his actions. In contrast, most of Aa Gym’s male followers did not condemn his decision (nor had they conjured a fantasy of Aa Gym as the model man). Rather, they explained the backlash in terms of his status as a national celebrity. The issue was not polygamy in general, but rather Aa Gym’s polygamy.
In recent months, Gymnastiar has focused on repositioning himself, rebranding his religious product, and reasserting his moral authority. Sceptics think his public career is finished, but Gymnastiar’s resilience, marketing acumen and understanding of the Indonesian religion market should not be underestimated.
‘If a salesperson is smart at marketing, he can sell even a rotten durian. On the other hand, if the person doesn’t know how to sell it right, even a good durian won’t sell.’ - Aa Gym
Although some of Gymnastiar’s businesses suffered losses, his publishing company made record profits selling self-help books not linked with his personal brand. Just months after the scandal, women who shredded his portrait were once again filling Indonesia’s national mosque, Mesjid Istiqlal, for his sermons; major corporations continued to invest in MQ employee training; and television executives were considering offering new contracts for Ramadhan.
In terms of personal rebranding, Gymnastiar vowed to shift from his previous preaching about universal ethics to an unabashed Islamic focus on aqidah (the articles of faith).. Admittedly surprised and hurt by the public backlash, Gymnastiar wondered how followers of Islam could question the revealed truth that permitted polygamy. He stated that his 20 years of preaching universal ethics had little real impact if his followers only loved him as a celebrity and did not truly believe the word of Allah. He told leaders of Daarut Tauhiid: ‘Don't be timid to carry the banner of Islam. Previously we carried universal colors. Now we will let our green show.’ Privately, Gymnastiar and MQ executives also looked inwardly, explaining his fall as punishment for their own moral shortcomings.
Declaring 2007 a year of learning, Gymnastiar began a regimented program of Arabic language training and worked with a private tutor to deepen his knowledge of the Qur’an and hadith. He has also publicly strengthened his ties with conservative religious leaders and politicians. On 12 August, he spoke at a rally promoting an international caliphate staged by the Islamist party Hizbut Tahrir. This openly conservative repositioning does not necessarily indicate support for an Islamic state. Rather, as one of Gymnastiar’s close advisors explained, his attendance at the rally ‘signified that he is still a religious leader who wields significant moral authority and can summon the Indonesian masses’. At this rally, Gymnastiar also stood in solidarity with the few influential Muslim leaders, like Hidayat Nur Wahid and Din Syamsuddin, who had publicly defended his choice to take a second wife.
In spite of this public repositioning towards the right, Gymnastiar’s book publishing company MQS continues to increase profits by targeting a decidedly mainstream market.
Equally important to the future rebranding of Aa Gym are the public roles to be played by his first wife Teh Ninih and his second wife Teh Rini. Voted Ibu Indonesia (Mrs Indonesia) 2006, Ninih, mother to seven children, was a much loved figure whose face adorned the covers of Muslim magazines. Gymnastiar promoted Ninih as an ideal wife and often used their family as the model of a keluarga sakinah. He frequently serenaded Ninih during television broadcasts and appearances at DT. During Ramadhan 2005, the newspaper Seputar Indonesia published a three part ‘Love Story’ series on their marriage. Gymnastiar’s publishing company marketed this public love story with the 2006 book Keluarga Sakinah.
After the news broke that he had married again, the eyes of Indonesian women turned towards Ninih. Media reports circulated stories of her fainting and subsequent hospitalisation after learning that Gymnastiar had married again (she had given prior approval for polygamy). At the urging of one of his media advisors, Gymnastiar and Ninih held a press conference in which he explained that polygamy was permitted by Allah as an ‘emergency exit’. Gymnastiar’s tattered image was shredded even more when a teary-eyed Ninih told the cameras that her approval was sincere.
The backlash against Aa Gym’s second marriage related to the public image he cultivated and to his status as a public figure.
Women across the archipelago believed the tears not the words. In the following months, however, Ninih continued her public support for Gymnastiar and played the big sister role towards his second wife Rini. She has even become one of the most popular female television preachers. Her public loyalty to Aa Gym could turn her into the poster-wife for polygamy.
Ninih’s support could also sway a public which typically holds the second wife in low regard. Gymnastiar recently made his first public appearance with both wives. For the first time ever, visitors to DT could have their pictures taken with Gymnastiar and a wife on either side. A visibly nervous Gymnastiar described this as a test run to determine if the public was ready to accept them together. Reticent about playing the public role of second wife, Rini is an intelligent and successful woman whose own charisma is capable of winning the hearts of those Indonesian women who once cast blame. Rini’s charm and Ninih’s popularity could help build the public image of a different sort of keluarga sakinah.
The question remains whether or not Gymnastiar can successfully rebrand himself, reclaim his moral authority, and return to the media spotlight. Gymnastiar’s conspicuous absence from Ramadhan television suggests that the gatekeepers of television would rather market new idols than rebrand old icons. One of these new idols, Yusuf Mansur, was chosen to preach about keluarga sakinah at the recent Syariah Expo 2007. Gymnastiar co-presented a separate seminar with his friend and ally Hidayat Nur Wahid. This provides a revealing glimpse into Gymnastiar’s future - he may not be the television celebrity of old, but he will still be an important public figure for conservative Islam in Indonesia. ii
James B Hoesterey (email@example.com ) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.