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Activists and preachers: engaging with publics in Indonesia

2018 marks 20 years since the dictator Suharto, who ruled Indonesia’s New Order for more than three decades, was forced to step down in the wake of the radical student movement and the 1997 Asian economic crisis. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country—characterized by ethnic diversity across a vast sprawling archipelago—has dramatically changed since. It is, as Ed Aspinall (2013) puts it, a “nation in fragments.” While the New Order was “characterized by a powerful military, centralized decision-making, violent repression, and ideological control,” the current era can be framed most broadly in terms of “democratization” and “decentralization” (Van Klinken and Barker 2009: 2). In this process, the military has since lost much of its power and prestige, there has been a dramatic growth of political parties, NGOs, and other civil society groups, political decentralization has given provinces and districts—and thereby local actors—greater autonomy, while the media landscape has splintered. Today Indonesia has the fourth largest number of Facebook users in the world, Jakarta has been called the Twitter capital of the world, and the same may already be true of Instagram. Although crony capitalism has by no means disappeared, the clientalism of the New Order has been decentered (Aspinall 2013: 13). The national economy is thriving as a result and appears likely to become the world’s fourth largest by 2050.

Nearly a decade ago Joshua Barker and I initiated a collaborative writing project that attempted to engage with this changing landscape in Indonesia, and later Southeast Asia. Close to 100 scholars were invited to write 1000-word essays on key “figures of modernity” across the region (Barker, Lindquist et al. 2009; Barker, Harms, and Lindquist 2013). The figures we asked people to identify ideally emerged from their own research and were able to illuminate and comment upon broader transformations that were often difficult to grasp, much like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur did with regard to nineteenth-century Paris (Benjamin 1986). For this project, two anthropologists, James Hoesterey and Doreen Lee—at the time finishing their doctoral dissertations in the US—offered snapshots of the Muslim Television Preacher and the Activist, respectively, as two key figures of Indonesian modernity.

The vignettes and kernels of analysis described through those two figures have now, some years later, been developed into two excellent and fascinating monographs, Hoesterey’s (2016) Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru and Lee’s (2016) Activist Archives: Youth Culture and Political Past in Indonesia. While both refer back to the earlier project (Hoesterey directly, Lee more in passing), neither focuses their analysis on the figure per se. Nevertheless, in considering the books together it appears reasonable to use the figures project as a backdrop for comparison. Although ostensibly concerned with different topics and theoretical approaches, taken together the monographs offer important shared insights, particularly into the transforming Indonesian public sphere, which both the Muslim Television Preacher and the Activist in different ways have attempted – with varying degrees of success – to make their own.

James Hoesterey’s account of the rise and fall Aa Gym—Indonesia’s most famous Muslim television preacher, or tele-dai, during the 2000s —speaks directly to questions concerning the public sphere, and particularly the fragmentation of Islamic authority in Indonesia and globally during the past few decades. Lacking a classical religious education, Aa Gym gained celebratory status after the fall of Suharto and the easing of media restrictions and privatization of television that allowed for the expansion of Islamic programming. Drawing together Sufi ideas with Western popular psychology, Aa Gym offered an “aspirational piety” (p. 8) centered on ethical self-fashioning and economic success, which Hoesterey suggests should be understood with regard to the blend of hope and anxiety that has characterized the post-authoritarian era. This entrepreneurial Islam cuts across the divide between traditionalists and modernists that has historically organized Indonesian Islam and has appeared to offer a route forward for a middle-class public.

Aa Gym’s meteoric rise, Hoesterey argues, is an example of a successful form of “religious branding,” which, “is part of a broader framework of Islamization, corporatization, and privatization of post-authoritarian Indonesia” (p. 37). With regard to this, a turn of phrase is introduced, which argues for a focus on the marketing of Islam, rather than Islamic markets per se. Like brands, more generally, Aa Gym’s religious brand focused on stories and myths about himself as an ideal husband and father and the value of the Manajemen Qolbu (Management of the Heart) program at the heart of his corporate enterprise. This brand came to create both an affective and economic relationship with a predominantly female audience. In this process, Aa Gym created a corporate empire based not only on television and commodities, but also on training programs that offered practical knowledge for entrepreneurial Muslim subjects (cf. Rudnyckjy 2010).

Yet, this empire was not limited to the commercial market. Aa Gym’s celebrity status also allowed him to speak to broader ethical issues within the public sphere, not least with regard to the state. In the second half of his book, Hoesterey describes Aa Gym’s political engagements in the contentious debates surrounding anti-pornography legislation. In this context, Aa Gym was able to create a “culture of shame” that placed moral affect at the heart of public discourse by engaging with key political actors such as then President Yudhoyono, thus in an important sense “summoning … the state to serve as moral guardian for personal virtue and the common good” (p. 150).

Through extensive fieldwork within Aa Gym’s headquarters in Bandung, as an integral “part of the road show” (p. xv) that travelled with him around the country, and particularly through his direct access and their clearly close relationship, Hoesterey offers fascinating insights into the social organization of a wide-ranging corporate enterprise and public engagement grounded in a relationship with an adoring and admiring public. The particular affective and ethical form that this relationship took, however, also led to his downfall, as his decision to take a second wife created an instant backlash and destruction of his brand, thus illuminating the instability that characterizes the contemporary Indonesian public sphere.

Doreen Lee’s Activist Archives focuses on the history and legacy of the Indonesian student movement that was instrumental in bringing about the fall of the New Order. Her ethnographic fieldwork began in the early 2000s among young activists who had become part of an urban-based culture of democracy that took shape after the fall of Suharto. Although primarily concerned with the everyday practices and experiences of activists, and the formation and endurance of social movements, Lee realized that memory and history were critical in understanding these processes. “The activist,” Lee writes, “is a historical-political subject who feels historical” (p. 6, emphasis in original). The question of how to engage with this feeling and the material and social forms it has taken is at the heart of her study.

As such, Lee was compelled to move beyond a strict hermeneutic engagement with her informants in order to distance herself from the celebratory narratives in the wake of Suharto, the self-conscious production of historical memory at the heart of activist culture, as well as the broader history of nationalism in Indonesia, all at the heart of activist subjectivity. These narratives placed youth, the pemuda, at the centre of a series of critical and often violent movements—most notably the national independence struggle—that had shaped the Indonesian historical imaginary. Turning to Derrida’s Archive Fever (1998), and strongly influenced by her doctoral advisor, James Siegel (cf. 1997, 1998), Lee engages with the “compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive” (2016: 11). While on the one hand, pemuda identity became a “supplementary source of activist power” (p. 10)—thus the feeling of history—those who embodied this identity conceived of themselves with regard to a historical trajectory. What Lee lacked in the ongoing “archivization of pemuda identity into a stable identity in Indonesian nationalism” (p. 10), was the “depth of the archive proper” (p. 8), a focus on the material production of the archive itself, which allowed for a perspective that ran against the grain of “pemuda fever” (p. 11-12).

Lee’s work thus attends carefully to the production and recuperation of activist archives—what she calls the “trash of democracy” (p. 40)—something that, in turn, allows her to engage with the “proto-history” of the student movement (p. 31). Importantly, this perspective shapes the basis for her contemporary ethnography, and a renewed understanding of the formation of everyday experiences and practices of student activists, ranging from the street politics that shaped the rise of a “demo-culture” (p. 61), to the development of a visual culture based on photography and fashion—for instance, the production and use of T-shirts—the dialectics of state violence and activist counter-violence, and the forms of housing and meeting spaces that came to shape activist lives through processes of “domiciliation.” There is a constant tension between the historical and the contemporary throughout, as Lee struggles to consider activist mobilizations in relation to written and unwritten histories that form the basis for what she sees.

While the differences between and the shared qualities of the two monographs should be evident, I would like to briefly consider what they have in common and what they together reveal about contemporary Indonesia. Both Hoesterey and Lee conducted their research in the middle part of the 2000s, more than five years after the fall of Suharto. With some historical perspective, they have been able to move beyond an earlier body of scholarship characterized by the spectre of the authoritarian New Order, and, later, those seduced by the initial period of optimism following reformasi, which inevitably gave way to diverse strands of hope, anxiety, and disillusionment. The Muslim Television Preacher and the Activist have been positioned in the midst of this world and thus come to embody both national histories and emerging transnational forms. A few different themes can be drawn out of this.

In both books, there is a sophisticated engagement with the possibilities and limitations of ethnographic research. Hoesterey is offered extraordinary access to one of the most famous people in Indonesia and divides his time between Aa Gym’s headquarters and travelling around the country with his entourage, while Lee becomes part of the activist world in the mega-urban region of Jakarta. Although terms such as “multi-sited ethnography” appear in passing, for both the methodological problem is not primarily about identifying specific sites, but rather about making sense of how the Muslim Television Preacher and Activist come to engage with a “nation in fragments” (Aspinall 2013). Both address overlapping forms of publics through ethical discourse; the former primarily aimed at the middle class and the state through a form of entrepreneurial Islamic virtue, the latter aimed at the nation and the rakyat, the people, in particular, through a focus on rights. In practice, this is primarily done through the self-conscious development of spectacle. Both Aa Gym’s rise to prominence and the development of a “demo culture” were closely intertwined with the deregulation of television in the years following the fall the New Order. In this regard, Hoesterey’s and Lee’s shared contribution is not primarily the analysis of public representations as such but rather an ethnographic description of the material production of publicity and how this is set in motion through mass media at a particular historical moment.

Nevertheless, the question of affect and identification with regard to addressed publics is critical to both books. In Hoesterey’s account, an affective relationship is constituted through the brand, but the emotional force is primarily centered on the audience that consumes Aa Gym’s message and products. Hoesterey understands the allure of aspirational piety as emerging at the intersection of hope and anxiety that characterizes post-authoritarianism, yet the affective relationship between religion and economic aspiration is certainly a broader phenomenon, evident not least in the expansion of Christian Pentecostalism in Indonesia and globally. Hoesterey’s key intervention is thus not primarily to offer a perspective on Aa Gym’s followers’ affective engagement, but rather an insightful account of the social organization of affect that addresses a certain public. Lee’s book, in contrast, while certainly concerned with mediating to a broader public—the people—is rather concerned with how activists themselves become affected, how they come to feel that they are historical subjects that are able to and have the mandate to speak for the nation and the people. From Lee’s perspective, then, it is the constitution of affect itself, as pemuda fever, that is the primary focus of interest, one that she engages in with great care and some unease.

Both authors are forced to engage with the fading influence of their protagonists. While Aa Gym dramatically falls from grace when he decides to take a second wife, Lee’s activists find themselves increasingly marginal as the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Suharto approaches. While this may suggest the end of an era, it does not necessarily signal closure. After a hiatus of some years, Aa Gym, has gradually moved back into the public spotlight and developed new forms of engagement, while the activists that Lee focused on remain committed to a democratic Indonesia, but are positioned outside of the public gaze as a general sense of crisis has, at least for the time being, faded. More generally, these shifting forms of influence point to the historically contingent relationship between authority and publics in Indonesia.

As commercial, political, and religious actors continue to compete for the attention of Indonesian publics, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are becoming the primary means of engagement. Aa Gym, for instance, has millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter. While the rise of the internet in Indonesia, primarily through the ubiquity of smartphones, suggests a further fragmentation of the media landscape—at least with regard to content—it is also important to remember that the emerging “follower economy” should be considered in relation to the historical importance of patron-clients relationships in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. A case in point is the late Benedict Anderson’s classic essay on the Idea of Power in Javanese Culture (1973), which—in contrast to Western conceptions—described power as “concrete, homogeneous, constant in total quantity, and without inherent moral implications as such” (p. 23). Certain individuals thus possess power and are as a result able to attract followers who come to recognize this. Today, social media allows for new modes of communication that connect these powerful figures with diverse publics, a theme which should be of concern for anthropologists and scholars from cognate disciplines. James Hoesterey’s and Doreen Lee’s excellent books are important points of reference for considering the historical foundations for these forms of relationships and their mediation.


Anderson, B., 1990. The idea of power in Javanese culture. Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 17-77.

Aspinall, E., 2013. A nation in fragments: patronage and neoliberalism in contemporary Indonesia. Critical Asian Studies, 45(1): 27-54

Barker, J., J. Lindquist et al., 2009. Figures of Indonesian modernity. Indonesia, 87, pp. 35-72.

Barker, J., E. Harms, and J. Lindquist, 2013. Figures of Southeast Asian Modernity. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.

Benjamin, W., 1986. Paris, capital of the nineteenth century. Reflections: essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings, ed. P. Demetz. New York, NY: Schoken Books.

Derrida, J., 1998. Archive Fever: a Freudian impression, translated by E. Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rudnyckjy, D., 2010. Spiritual Economies: Islam, globalization, and the Afterlife of Development. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Siegel, J., 1997. Fetish, Recognition, Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Siegel, J. 1998., A New Criminal Type in Jakarta: counter-revolution today. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Van Klinken, G. and J. Barker, 2009. Introduction: state in society in Indonesia. State of Authority: the state in society in Indonesia, eds. G. Van Klinken and J. Barker. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, pp. 19-46.

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