Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

When Salafism becomes fashionable

Published: Nov 15, 2023

Fachri Aidulsyah

The ‘Urban Salafism’ movement has emerged as one of the most recent trends among the Muslim population in several Indonesian cities, especially in the capital Jakarta. The spiritual discomfort of urban Muslim youth is at an all-time high due to their skepticism of mainstream Islamic organisations, the majority of which are becoming more political. In response, Salafism has grown in popularity as an alternative. Over the last decade, Salafism had thrived in Indonesian cyber space and its urban centres.

The stigmatisation of conservatism and radicalisation attributed to Salafists after the emergence of Laskar Jihad in the conflict in Ambon in 1999 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, challenged Salafism to transform their identity. In recent years, Salafism has excelled in offering a new prototype for an urban Muslim lifestyle that is increasingly popular, especially among many young Indonesians. Unlike Salafist groups in the Middle East, such as those in Tunisia and Egypt for example, Salafism in Indonesia is detached from political institutions or debates on democracy and politics. Nowadays, most adherents to Salafism are concerned with manifesting and re-framing their movement as a new type of cosmopolitan religious movement.

Salafism, celebrity and social media

The process of transforming Salafism in Indonesia’s urban areas, especially Jakarta, has changed over time. In recent years this success has had a lot to do with its use of social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and more recently through podcasts, to broaden Islamic discourse. It has defined Islamic narratives in strategic urban locations such as the central business district, malls, and wealthier neighbourhoods through enabling a new spirit of piety, which urban Muslims are now adopting more widely. The ability to blend the pop culture of urban youth groups with the Islamic tradition of Arabism, means urban Salafis can campaign for specific Islamic narratives and cultures in a hybrid style, referred to as ‘popular culture da’wa’', allowing the adoption of western, urban, or even cosmopolitan culture, in appealing to Islamic virtues. Once thought of as an ideologically and culturally conservative movement, Salafism has now become a digitally savvy and modern one. The movement’s ability to enlist urban celebrities, artists, content producers, filmmakers, and businesspeople who continue to engage in popular culture in a devout Salafi manner is evidence of its success.

Preachers are tailoring their sermons and appealing to younger followers / IG @masjidnuruliman

By bridging vernacular language, urban fashion style, and social media, Salafism has re-imaged the face of Salafism from ‘exclusivism’ to ‘inclusivism’. In Jakarta, most of those involved in weekly Islamic recitations or Pengajian Sunnah, are millennials or Gen Zs. Collaboration between Muslim millennials and the Salafi ustāzs (preachers) from Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Islam Arab (Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia, LIPIA), and alumni of Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia, has seen centres for Pengajian Sunnah established in numerous mosques, apartments, malls, and residences across the city. This includes centres for Pengajian Sunnah in the heart of the business district of Jakarta at Masjid Nurul Iman in Blok M Square Mall, and Masjid Umar bin Khattab in Pasar Senen, one of the most well-known market areas in Jakarta, and possibly all Indonesia. In Masjid Nurul Iman, Pengajian Sunnah is held daily, and prominent Indonesian Salafi figures are invited each week, attracting thousands of people. Most of the audience members in the Pengajian Sunnah are urban workers, young families and students living around Jakarta and its satellite cities.

A cause for collaboration

A key organisation contributing to the Urban Salafism phenomena is the Rabbaniaans, a majelis taklim (religious study group) founded in 2015 in Masjid Agung Al-Azhar, a renowned mosque located in the southern region of Jakarta. The Rabbaanians emerged from a partnership between the Yayasan Pesantren Islam (Islamic Boarding School Foundation, YPI) of Al-Azhar Jakarta and the division of Islamic Learning of Alumni Sekolah Islam Al-Azhar (ASIA) at Masjid Agung Al-Azhar. It is worth noting that many of the administrators at YPI Al-Azhar and members of ASIA, are from moderate Muslim middle-class families, including the ex-Vice Governor of Jakarta (2020-2022), Ahmad Riza Patria. In recent years, the Rabbaanians have emerged as a prominent group in Jakarta, playing a significant role in the dissemination of Salafism among urban youth. This development has been facilitated under the guidance and oversight of Salafi scholars, including Muhammad Nuzul Dzikri and Subhan Bawazier. 

Social media platforms like YouTube and podcasts enable groups like The Rabbaanians to communicate with young urban Muslims on topics that resonate / Listennotes podcast

The Rabbaanians have become a centre for the cultivation and advancement of urban Salafism among young Indonesians. They actively engage in their da'wa efforts by using social media platforms to extend invitations to anyone to participate in their cause. The Rabbaanians have fostered social cohesiveness and facilitated pop culture da'wa, resulting in the integration of urban youth and middle-class individuals and connecting them with Salafist figures. In recent times there has been a noticeable rise in interest in Salafism among actors, artists, broadcasters, singers and content producers - with some actively affiliating themselves with Salafi groups. These include well-known figures such as Uki, ex-guitarist of NOAH, one of Indonesia’s foremost rock bands; Deryansha Azhary, ex-bassist of Vierra and ex-Program Advisor in Hard Rock FM; Ucok Nasution, founder of Jakarta Clothing Expo (Jakcloth) the biggest urban lifestyle expo in Indonesia; and television presenter, Steny Agustaf, among others. This phenomenon may be attributed to a significant extent to the influence of the Rabbaanian community's da'wa efforts.

Reimagined Salafism

Through the strategic use of social media platforms and incorporating elements from popular culture, Salafism in Indonesia has undergone a process of reimagining, resulting in a hybridised form that is deemed acceptable within contemporary urban contexts. Historically characterised by its conservative worldview, steadfast commitment to missionary endeavours, adherence to orthodoxy, and deliberate detachment from modernity, today Salafism has a growing allure. The contemporary manifestation of Salafism demonstrates its ability to achieve cultural inclusivity, while still maintaining ideological exclusivity. In contemporary Indonesian society, Salafism has emerged as a significant platform for urban millennials, allowing for greater flexibility and adaptability in relation to their diverse origins, cultures and everyday experiences. 

Fachri Aidulsyah is a Researcher at the Research Center for Area Studies-National Research and Innovation Agency (P2W-BRIN) Republic of Indonesia, and a Masters student in the Languages and Cultures of Southeast Asia programme at Hamburg University, Germany. Since 2014 he has been actively conducting research on Islamism, ethno-nationalism, and ethnicity in many regions of Indonesia. 

Inside Indonesia 153: Jul-Sep 2023

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