Mainstreaming Islam in the Indonesian public sphere: Ummi Aminah as a case study

The film premiere of Aditya Gumay’s newest film, Ummi Aminah (Mother Aminah) in Jakarta last January 2012 was situated at the crossroads of events in Indonesian film industry. Prior to the screening of the film, the film director’s address to the audience expressed a plea to the public to consume locally-made films. As I write this, the Indonesian film industry is experiencing a decline in cinema audience numbers. From a respectful 1 million viewers in 2010, now film-makers and producers can expect a modest half a million. Production values of current and future films, and the distribution and packaging of original DVDs will reflect the slump as well. Gumay’s latest offering, Ummi Aminah, to woo audiences is at once shrewd and chimes with the Indonesian socio-political zeitgeist.

The film is promoted as a ‘family film’ about a popular female preacher and the dramatic entanglements that befall her large family and her reputation as a religious leader. Ummi Aminah is mother to five children and grandmother of one. In her role as preacher, she is also ‘mother’ to her all-female congregation who pray with her and listen to her sermons. However, indiscretions within her family; rumours surrounding her oldest daughter Zarika’s involvement with a married man and her son Zainal’s arrest for drug trafficking move in tandem to threaten to not only tear her family apart but also tarnish her reputation as a credible leader both on the public and domestic front.

Via Wikipedia

As a mother and popular ustazah, the character of Ummi Aminah was meant to appeal to a larger, more ‘universal’ audience. For the film’s director, Aditya Gumay, the film was less a commentary on the Islamic faith or women’s leadership in Islam, but about challenges a family face in crisis and the means through which a mother, as saviour, pulls together the family from fragmentation [1]. The family only happen to be Muslim and at the helm of the family is a woman and religious leader. Regardless of how ‘neutral’ its supposed comment on gender and Islamic affairs, the film raises a number of important questions about female leadership in Islam, namely how few and far in between they are, how under-represented they are, and the titular character’s more urgent responsibility as mother in the home as a key indicator of her success as a ‘mother’ to her congregation.

The film director’s refusal to market Ummi Aminah as an ‘Islamic’ film can be seen as a thoughtful strategy to increase the number of viewer identification with the film’s content. If anything, Gumay’s assertion of the film’s emphasis on ‘family values’ as the central theme is meant to format and market the film as mainstream rather than a niche genre that may appeal to a more religious audience who may not favour ‘consuming’ Islam at the cinema. Where once the production of films and other media during the holy of Ramadhan exhibited a distinctively Islamic bent, nowadays films with Islamic themes are produced all throughout the year and not commemorative of any religious occasion.

The apparent mainstreaming of Islamic content in films both as a marketing device and banalisation (or commodification [2]) of Islam in popular culture do not in any way diminish the intrigue elicited by the employment of Islamic themes in many Indonesian films, mainly because of the ways Islamic content are depicted have transformed dramatically over several decades of Indonesian cinema and this demands special mention.

The unusual nature and level of attention on Indonesia’s new wave of ‘Islamic’ film from 2008 [3] onwards reveal a number of questions regarding how religion is expressed in the public sphere. For individuals living in secular societies where the separation of religion and state entails the concomitant evacuation of religion to the private social realm, the effortless permeation of religious content in popular media can come across as a culturally dissonant one. As an individual from a predominantly Muslim society like Malaysia, the absorption of Islamic symbols into Indonesia’s film and media is remarkable given the absorption of Islam into the glossy and youth-oriented entertainment world.

In Malaysia, Islamic symbols – which includes depictions of prayer, the recitation of sacred texts, the tudung (headscarf), and the foregrounding of ‘appropriate’ Muslim etiquette between the sexes – are taken seriously. Such symbols are inextricably intertwined with how the state and state-controlled religious authority defines Islam and Muslimness. Here we have an example of the state apparatus becoming particularly successful in policing how Islamic symbols are used [4] when the state apparatus’s subjects learn to police ourselves by becoming agents of the repressive state ideology.

In Malaysia, the absorption of Islamic themes and symbols into popular culture is greeted by a divided audience. On the one hand, an enthusiastic audience that welcomes the popularisation of Islamic symbols into mainstream youth-oriented culture [5], but on the other is a more cynical one that is more wary of the ‘Islamisation’ of the public arena through ‘innocent’ channels such as films, pop music, and reality television.

Ummi Aminah is not unique in foregrounding Muslim families and their spiritual concerns as ‘social’ and ‘family’ issues. Another of Aditya Gumay’s film, Emak Ingin Naik Haji (Mother wants to go on the Hajj), about a family financial struggle to fund an elderly family member’s (the titular Emak) pilgrimage to Mecca is the focal point of other dramatic subplots that foregrounds the commodification of Islam. Here, commodification of Islam is critiqued as spiritually bankrupt; Pak Joko, a mayoral candidate uses the opportunity to be a pilgrim simply to raise his electoral appeal, while Haji Sa’un and family’s multiple trips to Mecca become a tool to keep with the Joneses and to rub shoulders with celebrity figures.

To understand the context from where a film such as Ummi Aminah emerges and the casual reception of the film as not ‘Islamic’ by definition, we must look at how Islamic symbols appear, are used and reproduced since the late 1980s in Indonesia leading up to the phenomenon of Islamic ‘commodification’ after 1998. Throughout the first two decades of his rule, Suharto had suppressed the politicisation of Islam and the public expression of the faith (including the banning of the jilbab, then deemed a symbol associated with extremist threats to the state). But in the late 1980s saw him welcoming the ‘Islamisation’ of state policy. One of his major turn-arounds was lifting the ban on the jilbab in elementary and secondary schools. His own daughter and public personality, Mbak Tutut, would eventually wear a jilbab in public herself.

In the scholarly review by the dean of Islamic Law at UIN Kalijaga Noorhaidi Hassan [6] will recount the cultural/religious from elite to the ‘masses’; namely the adoption by political leaders of Islamic minutiae to ‘complete’ obligatory rituals such as the use of Arabic greeting, assalamu’alaikum, before beginning their speeches and their publicised concerns regarding and participation in Islamic affairs. Soon in the 1990s, the Muslim middle class were seen displaying, performing, and articulating market and consumer-oriented sensibilities imbued with Islamic symbols. The much publicised adoption of the jilbab by established film actor Inneke Koesherawati in 2001 added the element of celebrity to the headscarf.

By the time the film Ayat-ayat cinta was released in 2008 to a 25,000 to 40,000 rupiah cinema ticket-paying public, a culture highly receptive to Islamic signifiers in Indonesian film was already cultivated and wanting for more. From the many accounts raised as notable ‘shifts’ or ‘breaks’ in cultural patterns towards a glossier, less staid/ritual-oriented Islam, it appears that the absorption of Islam into the public sphere is a largely middle class experience, or at least experienced and recounted from a middle class standpoint.

We should now talk about Islamic signifiers or simulcra and their role in the mainstreaming of Islam. Noorhaidi Hassan uses the term commodification of Islam to describe the phenomenon whereby symbols (Arabic greeting, jilbab, references to the Quran and hadith) related to Islam are taken out of the ritualistic paradigm and expression and enter previously non-religious realms / outside spaces of worship – popular culture, fashion, healthcare, banking, to name a few. Here Islamic symbols are turned simply into signifiers or as I would call them, simulcra, of more spiritually invested ones.

What commodification of Islam means, in that when and how it manifests, however, remains elusive. It seems that Noorhaidi Hassan talks about the commodification of Islam in terms of what commodification as putative evidence, and that is in his definition; “Religious commodification has in fact very much to do with the way religion, in this case Islam, is packaged and offered to a broader audience and how this has served to produce a framework for the moral order of society through the objectification and systematization of Islamic values and practices as a normative model.” The commodification of Islam, as Noorhaidi Hassan stresses, has little to do with commercialisation of Islam. But I would argue that commercialisation of Islam greatly depends on the commodification of Islam. In other words, not all forms of commodified Islam is commercialised Islam, but all forms of commercialised Islam is commodified Islam.

In the case of Ummi Aminah, “free-floating” signifiers of Islam are made to become ‘invisible’ and unproblematic. One hopes that other signifiers in similar cultural contexts such as gender and class may instead become more ‘visible’ by implication. As Islamic simulcra in films and other media continue to be generated in the cultural marketplace, one must begin to ask, what is refused to be ‘seen’ or overlooked in what is described a depthless show of Islamic commodities? Are all signifiers without depth and embraced in a shallow manner and not put into religious practice?

Ideas of what makes an acceptable female religious leader are indeed interwoven in Ummi Aminah as are attitudes regarding to femininity in old age, the role in faith in the family, and men as ‘helpers’ in their female spouses religious careers. This essay manages to scratch only the surface of what is an exciting matrix of Islam and Indonesian cinema. It is the scholar’s unwavering enthusiasm and hope that these lines of inquiry become the wellspring of continued, deeper and meaningful analysis.


Notes and reference:

[1] In my interview with the director Aditya Gumay on 29 January 2012.

[2] There is a growing literature on the ‘commodification’ of various religions , branching off from initial studies of ‘consumer Christianity’. The nature of religious commodities and the processes of commodification of religion will be too long to discuss here. So as an example and for greater detail of how Christianity and consumer culture overlap, there is Consuming religion: Christian faith and practice in a consumer culture by Vincent J. Miller, 2005.

[3] With the success of Ayat-ayat Cinta in 2008 came a particular interest – in academia and industry alike – in the new wave of ‘Islamic’ films.

[4] The debate on whether Christians in Malaysia are allowed to use ‘Allah’ in worship underscores the anxiety over how Islamic symbols and words are controlled by the state. For on this here.

[5] This is becomes particularly salient with the rise of the singer-songwriter Yuna, who wears the tudung and the adoption of the tudung by many other young Malaysian female public personalities.

[6] From ‘The making of public Islam: piety, agency, and commodification on the landscape of the Indonesian public sphere’ by Noorhaidi Hassan, 2009, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 229-250.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.

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