Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

A Popular Indonesian Preacher: The Significance of AA Gymnastiar/Un Predicateur Celebre En Indonesie: Le Role d'Aa Gymnastiar

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

A Popular Indonesian Preacher: The Significance of AA Gymnastiar/Un Predicateur Celebre En Indonesie: Le Role d'Aa Gymnastiar

Article excerpt

In his apologia for his decision to conduct research on Islamic preaching in contemporary Egypt, Gaffney (1994: 3, 29) points out how Western studies of Islam have become vulnerable to a new kind of orientalism. Arguing that research agendas seem often to be driven by political imperatives, he suggests that there has been an over-concentration on issues of political ideology and political movements and that this has led to a neglect of the comparative anthropology of Islamic institutions. The point is well taken. His book goes on to demonstrate the usefulness of not allowing oneself to be distracted by the concerns of political scientists and doom-laden futurologists and, instead, of looking closely at the dynamics of change within Muslim societies, focusing in particular on the way in which new knowledge is currently being generated and disseminated by new kinds of Muslim intellectuals. This approach was later taken up and expanded in Eickelman and Anderson's path-breaking book New media in the Muslim world (2003; first edition 1999), which sought to illustrate the revolution in religious thinking which was taking place in different Muslim countries as a consequence of the use made of new media technologies.

In particular what Eickelman, Anderson, and their contributors were arguing was that new public spheres were being created as a consequence of the emergence of new people (an educated mass population), new thinking (an ongoing dialogue between global and local discourses), and new Muslim intellectuals (those emerging from beyond the traditional cradles of Islamic scholarship). In their opinion it was important to plot the changes occurring in order to perceive how new institutions of civil society were being created in the 'interstitial spaces' (Eickelman & Anderson 2003: 9) provided by the new media. These, they argued, provided unrivalled opportunities to engage in forms of critical thinking and exchange which had not been possible before.

In some countries--they mention Turkey and Lebanon (2003: 4)--Muslim communities could make use of private television channels to communicate ideas. In other countries, where television was under strict state control, other media such as the internet provided opportunities for interactive exchanges. The comparative dimension is important here, both in the contrast between how communities make differential use of the media according to contingent social and economic circumstances and in relation to the rapidly changing political kaleidoscope within a single country. As political circumstances change, so too does the use of media. In no country is this more visibly the case than in Indonesia since Suharto's downfall in 1998.

In the Eickelman and Anderson volume Hefner (2003) documents only one case illustrating the significance of what has happened, but en passant makes a number of useful points reminding us of the particularity of the Indonesian situation. He remarks, for instance, that whereas in other Muslim countries the growth of a new intellectual Muslim discourse has largely led to radical extremism, in Indonesia, despite appearances to the contrary and, he might have added, the concerns of non-specialist political observers of Indonesia, the movement--in which Indonesia has led the modern world--has been towards a new moderate Islam (2003: 163, 176). The Indonesian 'street'--if that is a useful metaphor (1)--has, in other words, been sending very different messages from what has been reported for other countries. Nevertheless, Hefner, optimistic as he is about the healthiness of the development of Muslim intellectual thinking in Indonesia, sounds a note of caution. He reminds us that civic pluralism does not simply come into play as a consequence of the opening up of new pluralist possibilities realized through the loosening of state controls of the media. The tolerance which pluralism demands is constantly contested and needs to be fought for, a point made more generally by Norton in the same volume (2003: 22). …

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