Popular Religion in Indonesia's Islamic Growth Movement

This paper explores the tenor of Islamic religiosity in Indonesia stimulated through commercial and mass-media-promoted programs of spiritual development. It examines examples of two types of program, both of which are heavily infused with borrowings from popular secular culture: those launched by the top-rating televangelists (‘dai’) of the last decade, here exemplified by Abdullah Gymnastiar, and those offered by ‘trainers’ to corporations and individuals so they can improve their performance through spiritual recommitment and discipline. The latter (‘trainer’-delivered programs) will be exemplified by Ary Ginanjar’s ‘ESQ’ (‘Emotional, Spiritual Quotient’) seminars.

Through their borrowings from popular art forms (songs, fashion, television formats and set design), and from the popular sciences of ‘success’ (management science and motivational psychology), both types of spiritual development program appear perilously to straddle the boundary between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ – a not inconsequential matter for Indonesia’s revival-energised Muslims. In this, as in the programs’ appropriation and dispersal of religious authority into the community at large, they appear to erode not just the boundaries of conventional Islamic propiety but of ‘religion’ itself. Observing similar features in European popular religion, Hubert Knoblaugh (2008) invites us to reconstrue the religious in such a way that its profane expressions need not be taken as corruptions or category errors. The interpretive section of this paper explores the applicability of this approach to the cases of popular Islamic religion cited above.

Associate Professor Julia Day Howell, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University

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