Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Contesting the religious soundscape

Published: Mar 23, 2022
A controversial regulation governing the call to prayer sparks a campaign aimed at taking down the Religious Affairs Minister

Andy Fuller

The Forum Betawi Rempug (FBR, Betawi Brotherhood Forum), a Jakarta-based vigilante group, boasting some 60,000 members and founded in the early 2000s, is on the march again. They are taking to Jakarta’s streets, but also to YouTube and Instagram to voice their displeasure with the Minister of Religious Affairs.

video published on FBR’s YouTube channel on 24 February 2022, opens with a dangdut-style song and flashing graphics, before fading away to reveal a room full of men wearing a mix of Islamic and Betawi clothing. Some are squatting; others are standing. Some men are wearing COVID masks over their mouths and noses; some have them dangling beneath their chins. Most are wearing black peci (a traditional cap commonly worn by Muslim men)– indicating their Islamic piety. A man stands in the middle, holding a phone. It turns out, for this, brief, one-and-a-half-minute video, he is in charge. He is the chief orator, dressed all in black. He annunciates slowly, one sentence at a time, with those around him repeating his words, louder and more forcefully. Each sentence is accompanied by a raised first, which serves as an exclamation mark.

Assalamualaikum wb wr 
Betawi: rempug!
Betawi: unite!
FBR: hidup!
FBR: rise-up!
Yang kurang ajar: hajar!
The impolite: smash em!

Kami segenap, warga besar, Forum Betawi Rempug, se-Jabotabek, siap bela agama, untuk merobohkan Satan, yang takut suara adzan. Untuk itu, kami meminta, kepada Bapak Presiden Joko Widodo, untuk segera, memberhentikan, Yaqut Cholil, sebagai Menteri Agama.  

We, the people of Forum Betawi Rempug (United Betawi Forum), throughout the region of Jabotabek, are ready to defend religion and to take Satan – who is afraid of the sound of the adzan (call to prayer) – down. As such, we ask President Joko Widodo, to immediately fire Yaqut Cholil as the Minister of Religious Affairs.

Betawi: Rempug!
Betawi: unite!
FBR: Hidup!
FBR: rise up!
Yang kurang ajar: hajar!
The impolite: smash em!
Se-Jabotabek: Rempug
All of Jabotabek: unite!
Menteri Agama: Pecat!
Religious Minister: fire him!
Assalamu’alaikum wb wr
Wa’alaikum salam …

The video then ends with a quick fade-out with some gentle flute melodies played over a lilting Betawi-inspired acoustic theme. The gentleness of the melody contrasts with the forcefulness of the exhortation of the video itself.

Turning it down?

The target of the video is the Minister of Religious Affairs, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas. On 18 February, the Minister issued Circular Letter No. SE 05 of 2022 on Guidelines for the Use of Loudspeakers in Mosques and Prayer Rooms (Surat Edaran No. SE 05 tahun 2022 Tentang Pedoman Penggunaan Pengeras Suara di Masjid dan Musala), with instructions to limit the volume of broadcasts to 100 decibels, improve sound quality and reduce their duration. Acknowledging Indonesia’s religious diversity, the letter instructed that the adzan be subject to regulation in the name of tolerance. It immediately drew the ire of the FBR and other organisations including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS, Partai Keadilan Sejahtera).

In his accompanying statements, the Minister explained that owing to the sheer density of mosques, the volume of the broadcasts had the potential to cause communal disturbances. His error, and perhaps the main trigger for the ensuing controversy, was that he did not merely ask that ‘some mosques turn down the volume a touch’. Rather, he compared the feeling of being disturbed by the adzan, to that of the disturbance that one might experience by living in a housing complex and being surrounded by barking dogs (anjing menggonggong). But, the correspondence between FBR’s campaign and Yaqut’s words are a moot point. What is at play is a dispute over orthodoxy and the untouchable position of Islam in the public sphere.

In its editorial on 24 February 2022, Tempo newspaper, Indonesia’s most critical media outlet backed the Minister, ‘these guidelines are important because the adzan, prayers, as well as majelis taklim (informal Qur’anic recitation group), being broadcast from mosques, often creates noise pollution and triggers societal conflict’. Tempo not only criticised the sheer ubiquity of the adzan, but their aesthetics too: ‘the situation becomes even more complicated because a not small number of muezzin aren’t suitable to recite the adzan. With the volume turned up full, they then recite the adzan with poor pronunciation and rhythm. While they might aim to inspire the faithful to make the way to the mosque, the adzan often becomes a disturbance for those within earshot.’

Viral protest

Long-time avowed supporters of President Joko Widodo, FBR mobilised across a range of media to pressure him to remove Cholil, a previous chair of the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU)-aligned Ansor Youth Movement and brother of the newly elected leader of NU. The FBR, perhaps feeling betrayed by one of their ‘natural alliances’, published numerous videos on their YouTube channel – including the one described above. In a not so subtle taunt, FBR also helped to promote an adzan recitation competition being held by Cholil’s alma mater, the NU’s Ansor Youth Movement.

The agitation was not without humour. The competition advertisement was accompanied by an alternative ‘barking’ competition based around the theme of ‘being afraid of the adzan’. The image showed a sprightly Jack Russell terrier surrounded by music notation. The adzan competition image itself contained no such humorous or catchy imagery - merely information about how to participate and how much prize money would be available to successful contestants.

The leader of the FBR, Imam Luthfi Hakim, sounded a more cautionary tone, via Instagram, trying to put the controversy into perspective.

A stern-looking portrait of Luthfi Hakim, the FBR’s leader and self-styled Imam Besar (Great Leader), accompanied his message. He is wearing dark sunglasses, a peci and has his arms are folded across his t-shirt, which depicts a growling tiger. His Instagram post reads:

Pandemi masih berlangsung
The pandemic is still ongoing
Rakyat hanya minta
Diturunkan harga sembako
Listrik dan sembako
The people only want the prices of staples,
electricity and people
to come down
bukan volume adzan
Not the volume
of the adzan

In an environment in which spoken words can be easily taken out of context, sensationalised and made to ‘go viral’, it was not surprising that the Minister for Religious Affairs’ particular choice of words was received in this way. The former governor of Jakarta, Ahok, was brought down in similar fashion in 2017 after an orchestrated campaign regarding his alleged defaming of the Qur’an.

Although, Cholil currently remains in his position, the incident reveals how quickly a Minister, and even the President himself, can be subject to the pressure and mobilisation of Ormas (organisasi masyarakat - societal organisations), who act not only as agents with the power to propel certain politicians to power, but are also capable of bringing them down. The FBR, like the tiger on Hakim’s t-shirt, is quick to pounce on any weakness in a breaking down of orthodoxy, which threatens Islam’s hegemony over Indonesia’s religious soundscape.

Andy Fuller (a.c.s.fuller@uu.nl) is a member of the SACRASEC research project and the SoSCo research group of the Cultural Anthropology Department at Utrecht University. He also co-founded Reading Sideways Press.

Inside Indonesia 147: Jan-Mar 2022

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