Japanese electronics manufacturer Sharp is claiming a first in Indonesia — halal refrigerators — after the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) granted the manufacturer halal status.
It’s the latest indication that Islam is being commoditized in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
From language to fashion, the Muslim public is striving to be visibly Muslim. Critical minds are protesting that little spirituality is involved and that people who refuse to follow the fashion trend are being terrorized by being told they are not faithful to their religion.
Central to this social transformation is the concept of hijrah, a term from the earliest years of Islam when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers migrated to avoid conflict and persecution.
Lailatul Fitriyah, a doctoral candidate in theology at Notre Dame University, recently told feminist online magazine Magdalene that the current pursuit of the interpretation of hijrah is potentially highly destructive.
She states that one historical interpretation of the concept is that Muslims should migrate from areas that are ruled by fellow Muslims (Darul Islam) and not accept living under the rule of non-Muslims. This was one of the basic beliefs of the Islamic State movement, or Daesh.
Some Indonesians believe that they have to create their own spaces within the country, ruled as it is by a secular government.
“This is becoming a process of social segregation. It is not a process of expanding our universe and working together with different people but it is restricting our lives,” states Fitriyah.
People must wear the right clothes and are being told they have to live in Muslim housing developments in a process she believes is extremely dangerous.
While people claim this is religious, in fact it is more a matter of lifestyle. The movement is forcing people to buy and consume certain goods — even halal refrigerators.
Fitriyah argues that the hijrah movement tends to ignore spiritual development and promises “instant perfection” for those who adopt all the right lifestyle symbols.
The movement is strongest among the educated urban middle class, where traditional community links are weakest, she says.
Other commentators equate the sense of having to defend and strongly identify with the Islamic religion as a legacy of the sense of persecution among the Muslim community that developed under the Suharto regime.
Within the diverse Indonesian community, such a movement is potentially highly divisive and, as shown by its shared attitudes with radical groups such as Daesh, could lead to radicalism.
The trend is also often dangerous for those who adopt it, said Achmad Munjid, a lecturer at the department of intercultural studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, in an op-ed article in The Jakarta Post.
He points to a desire on the part of the public to adopt the symbols of Islam to support their self-confidence. But, he says, when the demand for “religious providers” outstrips the supply, “the essence and quality of religious practice become secondary.”
“This thirst for religious symbols eventually invites new actors, many without proper training, some even with dark motives.”
This thirst, he states, “has helped created the Islamic black market, a free space for quasi religiosity, pseudo-Muslim preachers, fake Islamic business and religious fraud … as well as teaching hoaxes, including radicalism and terrorism.”
Among the abuses that have been committed are a number of cases in which fraudsters have traded on the high demand for short pilgrimages — umroh — to the Islamic holy land.
Companies offering cut-price pilgrimages that are never provided have cheated thousands of people out of many millions of dollars.
At the same time, says Munjid, there is a troubling discrepancy between the public craving for Islamic symbolism and the high level of corruption in society.
Fitriyah says there are better ways to become a better Muslim. “What’s more important is humanitarian hijrah,” she says.
“There is no need for any sense that Islam is a religion under pressure in Indonesia. Get out and meet different people. It’s a process of dealing with our internal issues. That’s actually more difficult than going out and buying a halal refrigerator.”
Some Muslims are reacting in a different way.
Jakarta housewife Yani — not her real name — says terrorist bombings and the social pressure to conform to an Islamic lifestyle have made her doubt her religion. She now feels oppressed by her fellow Muslims because she refuses to conform.
“People give me dirty looks in the street if I walk up to local shop in a pair of shorts. The other mothers at my children’s school all ask why I don’t cover my hair. It never used to be like this,” she complains.
“I refuse to be pushed into conforming with something I don’t believe in. I was brought up to believe that my religion is a matter between the individual and the Almighty. It is not a matter of what you look like or what you wear. Most of these people are hypocrites. They are no more holy than they ever were in the past. The pressure has made me wonder about what we have learned from Islam. We were told as children that we had to believe all of this. Now, I have my doubts.”
Not having a religion is not an option in Indonesia, but it is possible that while on one side the majority accepts conformity, a minority will reject it and turn to questioning their faith.
The hijrah movement sits at the heart of very deep cultural change in Indonesia. Since the decision of the late president, Suharto, to become more overtly Muslim in the early 1990s, there has been a marked shift toward Islamic conformity and conservatism.
To a degree, the search for identity in modern Indonesia may represent dissatisfaction with democracy and what it has achieved in the 20 years since Suharto stepped down.
At a time when many people are depressed at the state of affairs in a highly corrupt society, and when outside influences are pushing hard-line Wahhabi beliefs on the community, many Indonesians are under severe pressure to abandon the secular, inclusive view of life that is one of the foundation stones of the nation.
This article was written by Keith Loveard, an Indonesia-based journalist and a regular contributor to ucanews.com.