‘Romantic’ sexual violence, mediated intimacy and the single Muslim woman in Malaysia

“Romance imagines peace, security, and ease precisely because there is dissension, insecurity, and difficulty” (Janice Radway, Reading the Romance 1984, p. 15)

Lately I’ve become very interested in how heterosexual Malay-Muslim women talk about romantic intimacy in their pursuit of potential partners, and why sexual violence features so significantly in Malay language romance novels. The public reaction to the foregoing statement is sharply divided: many are ‘shocked’ and ‘worried’ that women relish the depiction of rape in romantic fiction while others are ‘unsurprised’ knowing that sexual violence is a recurring trope of romance fiction found typically in established presses like Mills and Boon and Harlequin.

My latest project engages with these contrasting reactions by bringing together two bodies of scholarship. First, the construction of Malay-Muslim womanhood is narrowly defined along conservative ideas of demure and modest religiosity. It is incongruent with the undercurrent of desire seen in the commitment to reading romantic fiction and explicit violence. What makes this project new and germane is its examination of media practices through which women can safely explore romance, intimacy, and sexuality on their own terms even if it means a fascination with sexual violence.

Second, heterosexual romance is a long-discussed topic in the analysis of popular literature by feminist critics. Since the publication of Janice Radway’s classic 1984 study Reading the Romance, the romance novel has been viewed as a form of escape from the drudgery of domestic life and a romanticisation of women’s subordination in ‘real life’.

Commitment to romance reading is underpinned by the twin complex of ‘deprivation’ and ‘fear’; feeling deprived of romantic attention and pleasure in real life, and management of fear of patriarchal violence (Radway 1984, p. 70). Radway has an explanation for the recurring depiction of men’s sexual brutality in romance novels, arguing that it stems from women’s conflicted desire to deal with it and tame it:

… romance’s preoccupation with male brutality is an attempt to understand the meaning of an event that has become almost unavoidable in the real world. The romance may express misogynistic attitudes not because women share them but because they increasingly need to know how to deal with them. (1984, p. 72).

Female readers’ ways of coming to terms with patriarchy via the romance can also be discerned in their distinction between ‘forceful persuasion’ and “true” rape. While both are non-consensual acts of sexual violence, the former is romanticised whereby acts of violence by the male love interest are re-interpreted when he eventually shows utmost tenderness and devotion towards the heroine. Similar to the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, there is a kind and loving prince who really exists within the ‘Beast’ and waiting to be rehabilitated by the purity of the heroine’s love.

To make sense of how ‘love’ and ‘romance’ are defined in modern Malay society, I turn to Wazir Jahan Karim’s classic research on discourse of emotions in Malay society (1990). Articulations of intimate and romantic emotions become intensified during courtship and mediated through traditional verse (pantun) and song. Because naked expression of love and desire is subject to moral censure and frowned upon, courting couples send each other lines of verse to convey their most intimate feelings. However, her ethnographic study on traditional Malays demonstrates patterns of male agency and female passivity in the expression of emotions during courtship. My research aims to study contemporary behaviour and female agency in articulations of love and desire in a media-saturated society. I have chosen two modern media practices for this project: committed romance novel reading and mobile dating/matrimonial usage.

What is ‘mediated intimacy’ and why it matters

The project utilises the concept of ‘mediated intimacy’ to examine its role in mate-seeking and romance amongst single, university-educated Malay-Muslim women in urban Malaysia. ‘Mediated intimacy’ is a concept developed by Rosalind Gill (2009) which describes ‘the ways in which our understandings and experiences of a whole range of intimate relationships are increasingly mediated by constructions’ from media culture.

I would propose that ‘mediated intimacy’ becomes a resource for thinking, talking, and practicing romantic ideals in a conservative society where divulging openly about female desire is frowned upon. Thus, narratives from fiction and other media sources become materials and a powerful influence in the way Malay-Muslim women understand their romantic identity.

This project uses Anthony Giddens’s notion of ‘textual romance’ (2013) that draws parallels between romantic fiction and online dating practices whereby intimacy and romantic fantasy are developed with an appropriate degree of distance, both temporal and spatial, and at one’s own pace.

Media practices play an increasingly important role in the reconfiguration of gender roles and romantic expectations of Muslim women who belong to generations that have undergone rapid processes of modernisation and increased access to higher education, white-collar employment, and migration to urban centres (Abu Lughod 2005; Kaya 2009; Chakraborty 2012).

There is a growing body of scholarship on the usage of online dating and matrimonial services by young Muslims in Muslim majority societies. In societies where young Muslim women are socially discouraged and restricted from mixing freely with the opposite sex, online and mobile dating apps have become an increasingly popular medium for connecting in safe and respectable ways (Kaya 2009; Chakraborty 2012; Bajnaid and Elyas 2017).

The proposed project intends to shed light on the affordances and limitations of media practices that facilitate opportunities for emotional intimacy, romance, and marriage for Malay-Muslim women. Furthermore, this project seeks to identify the constituents that make up economies of desire that shape, limit, and enhance discourses of Muslim femininity and its aspirations. The research will be informed by studies that highlight the discerning nature of media consumption amongst Malay-Muslims in contemporary Malaysia (see Fischer 2008; Weintraub 2011; Md. Syed 2013), a society shaped by postcolonialism, neoliberalism, and globalisation much like the work by Randhika Parameswaran on young Indian female readers of Western romance fiction.

The redefinition of romance and intimacy in 21st century Malaysia by Muslim women will throw into sharp relief the transformation of women’s roles from colonial to the postcolonial-neoliberal present (Ong 1990; Stivens 2006). From the emergence of the New Malay Woman in the early postcolonial period to the contemporary Islamic model of femininity, the conflicting forces of modernisation, Islamisation, and neoliberalism have created deeply ambivalent constructions of Malay Muslim femininity.

I am interested in how rising conservatism across Southeast Asia is reshaping modernity and projections of gender in public and private discourses of agency, intimacy, failure and success. I am especially concerned that rising conservatism is contributing to the ‘illiberal turn’ in the economies of desire and notions of modern Muslim gender identities developed in mediated narratives of intimacy in romance fiction and Muslim dating services. I define the ‘illiberal turn’ in Malaysia as the domination in the public sphere of a broadly conservative approach to politics, law, and religious practice, with a tendency to restrict the freedoms and rights of minority groups and women (Peletz 2016).

Early data on Malay romance readers

In a small preliminary online survey I conducted with 87 female respondents in early 2017, nearly half were between the ages 21-25 years old (44.5%), and about a third were still in tertiary education (65.5%). Most were avid readers of romance novels (more than 8 a year, 32.2%):

avid readers chart

I created the survey to identify themes that readers look out for in romance novels. 26 readers chose ‘Husband of parents’ choosing’ aka arranged marriage, 44 chose ‘Love according to Islamic principles’ aka Syariah-compliant romance, most i.e. 60 readers enjoy ‘Love after marriage’ as the main theme’, while 23 readers like ‘Contractual marriage’.

Tema cinta yg digemari

Not being a reader of Malay romance fiction myself, I was certain the four themes above are far from comprehensive. So I let the respondents fill in other themes they enjoy. Note that ‘kahwin paksa’ (forced marriage) appears a few times:

tema cinta yg digemari1

tema cinta yg digemari2

tema cinta yg digemari3

In a question on the socio-economic background and professional status of the male love interest, respondents showed a great variety of high and low status jobs. Business owners, lawyers, medical doctors represented the majority of male characters in Malay romance novels (70-81%), followed by university students (52%) and ustaz or male Islamic teacher and preacher (44%). But in the respondents’ own answers, there are surprising results, such as fisherman, street burger vendors, and farmers:

pekerjaan watak lelaki lain

It’s hard to surmise for now if readers really do enjoy romance between women (much like themselves) and men in low-paying jobs. Novels like ‘Bang Guard Security Hatiku’ (Security Guard of My Heart) and ‘M.A.I.D’ that portray both male and female characters in low status precarious jobs perhaps combine both fantasy and mirror to the socio-economic uncertainty and inequality pervasive in Malaysian society. Such novels not only romanticise economic hardship and inequality but provide a narrative for adaptation and consolation in ‘real life’.

The survey asked respondents qualities of the female heroine they enjoy and perhaps relate to. A few have already stated a liking for ‘strong female characters’ in themes they look for in romance fiction. Others demonstrate a preference for the modest Muslimah which may suggest the cross-boundary quality of romance as fiction vs romance as real life:

Watak perempuan

The early data captures themes and qualities in heterosexual pairings in Malay romance fiction enjoyed by avid readers of the genre. In the research that follows, depictions of rape and other acts of male violence will be discussed with more detail with readers, authors, and publishers. It is tempting to arrive at the same conclusion as Janice Radway, but I believe there are other mechanisms of agency and desire at work amongst Malay-Muslim women. I am less interested in individual novels such as Ombak Rindu and their popularity, but more in themes of violence and inequality and how they fit into ideas of ‘romance’ and ‘intimacy’ readers learn, develop, and adopt for themselves in their own romantic quests.

New piece on New Mandala: Rape and the pantomime of misogyny

I have a new piece up on New Mandala published on 19th February where I try to grips with the violent misogyny in Malaysian politics. It is a mere platitude to argue that these male politicians are misogynistic. What’s more pertinent to ask is, why are they are using their platforms to air these views, why do they need to display their hatred of women so openly.

For better or worse, formal politics has been conceptualised as dramaturgy where politicians are actors who perform an ideological script.1 In Malaysia, the farcical tragicomedy of politics bears exaggerated elements of performance and dramaturgy which is why it may be useful to understand Malaysian politics as pantomime. In a pantomime, emotions are whipped to a frenzy when a villain or hero walks onto the stage. It is a theatrical mode that relies on the hyperbolic qualities of the hero, villain, and fool. It is through re-thinking Malaysian politics as a pantomime that we can perhaps understand its tacit and explicit endorsement of sexual violence against women.

Formal politics as pantomime is a little different from populist politics in that extreme views are attributed to political actors who are otherwise revered in person and for their other public accomplishments. But politics as pantomime shares a continuity with populism in that there is an acknowledgement that politics is artifice because the promotion of populist views may be necessary in spite of the politician’s own personal conviction. As a theatrical form, pantomime is open to a participating audience who may sing, heckle, and laugh. Despite their distance from political actors, there is an emotive register of the Malaysian public who react to the theatricality of Malaysian politics in the arena of public discourse.

Read the rest here.

A Malaysian scholar remembers Stuart Hall

First published in my Malay Mail column on 27th February 2014:

A great intellectual died on February 10, 2014. His name was Stuart Hall, dubbed the “godfather of multiculturalism.”

As the tributes by academics made up of peers and admirers alike came flooding in, I thought about the impact of Hall’s work concerning identity and culture on Malaysians.

I believe that some of us, as postcolonial subjects like he was, too can claim to be moved by his ideas and share his vision. But it is his contribution to Cultural Studies as a discipline that has most influenced me as a scholar.

Earlier this year, I bought a ticket to attend a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in June with the hope to meet him.

I did not know that it would become a memorial for Stuart Hall. Hall, who was an erstwhile director of the Centre, championed the much celebrated (and mocked) “Cultural Studies.”

The political influence and notoriety of the CCCS meant that those of us who wanted to study film, television, magazines, and “trashier” aspects of popular culture often sought sanctuary behind the Centre’s authority. A similar kind of debate about intellectual legitimacy is reignited in academia today in its defence of the Humanities.

What makes Stuart Hall so special and unique? It would not be an understatement to suggest that a great intellectual is chiefly a product of circumstances. A Rhodes scholar at Merton College in Oxford University when the empire was crumbling, Hall knew, as a Jamaican, he did not fit comfortably in the staid and exclusionary protocols of Oxford. His work on identities and culture were as much a searing ideological critique of racism as an attempt at making sense of his status as an outsider trying to fit in.

The 1960s was an exciting time for critical theory and its influence on popular culture. Picking up from where the Frankfurt School had left off, the study of mass media was gaining respectability through its associations with semiotic-based structuralism and psychoanalysis.

At the same time, it was a period of total disillusionment with Soviet communism. The British New Left, to which Hall belonged as a key figure, needed a new focus and vision.

The counter-cultural 1960s was a wellspring of possibilities, both political and cultural, and it was obvious that Hall and his cohorts wasted no time. Rather than remain in critical theory, which was (and is) pessimistic in outlook on why revolutions have failed, Cultural Studies in its departure was committed to social change, offering a more positive programme and tools for successful rebellion.

As a scholar whose research keeps Hall’s memory alive, I find his prose electric. Electric in that its forthright style is a stunning example of both intellectual non-conformism and resistance.

And it is defiance of the established intellectual order that would be his greatest gift of inspiration to generations of scholars dedicated to Cultural Studies.

Resistance to hegemonic ideologies about the myth of the nation and national culture was something Hall wanted people to wake up to and participate in. However, it was the very resistance and postmodernism, particularly the latter’s characteristic demolition of hierarchies between high and low culture that Cultural Studies relied on, that contributed to the depoliticisation of Cultural Studies, much to Hall’s dismay.

Today, anyone can select willy-nilly a particular media text, examine it long enough to unlock their own hidden meanings of resistance and say they are doing Cultural Studies. The meaning of resistance can be decoded into anything and in danger of meaning nothing at all.

While this might have upset Hall to some degree, this is the legacy of openness and unpredictability of Cultural Studies as a discipline that we should welcome during these troubled times in academia.

Why freedom of the press matters

First published on The Malay Mail on 16th January 2014.

The Red Pencil protest on January 4 is more than a political struggle against repressive state legislature led by journalists and activists. It is about the basic right to information to be enjoyed by all and therefore it would be imperative to appreciate where the public is situated in this political struggle. The rest who are not dressed in red should care.

There are three main dynamic entities in the politics of journalism: the state, the professional journalist class, and the reading public. As the ongoing protest against state repression on press freedom in Malaysia continues, readers of the news might not fully appreciate why they should also demand greater press freedom than what is offered in the status quo and why.

We now live in the age of media saturation and excess of information. Lack of media freedom might not seem obvious to the average member of the public who can access the seemingly limitless content on the Internet. What we do not like in the mouthpieces of the government we can turn elsewhere for a different perspective. But this is not enough.

The extent of ministerial expenditure of tax-payer’s money and denial of the public’s right to know is currently a cause for contention. But there are other concerns that deserve the public’s scrutiny: the business deals struck between profiteering politicians and corporations, how much the royalty spends and on what, fraudulent food production practices, and the epic scale of environmental damage and exploitation of natural resources by local and transnational companies and the powers that be who benefit from them. These are but a few out of many pressing issues that the public must know with impartiality and balance.

One should consider beyond the parochial limits of Malaysian party politics and national borders concerning the politics of access to information. Post-Cold War spying and the NSA scandal have also demonstrated that data generated by ordinary users in the border-less ether of the Internet can be mined and exploited. As users, we are also complicit in giving away too much personal information online. The bottom-line is this: we live in a surveillance society where we as the public know little about how much governments and data-mining corporations know about us.

We should not kid ourselves into thinking that greater media freedom in Malaysia will mean that we will have neutral and objective coverage of the news. This will never happen. The professional journalist class and those who work within and for the media have the power to construct news for the public. They are the mediators between events and the public. With the privilege of selecting events for news coverage, they are the gatekeepers of what the public can know. Lack of neutrality in the news, however, does not necessarily diminish relative freedom of information.

The original conception of “the press” existed before newspapers and the professional journalistic trade. It began as pamphleteering and mass printing of ideas to the public, long before newspapers were controlled by the rich and powerful. The basic idea of the press analogous to pamphleteering exists today, in the form of blogging and tweeting. This is the reason why citizen journalism must also be protected from repression and not just professional journalism.

But is a truly free news media really ideal for the public? A truly free news media may indeed open up the news market to independent and alternative media outlets to flourish. In a liberal economy free from state restraint, owners and stakeholders of media outlets are free to define the tenor of their newspapers.

Who will regulate the impartiality and balance of the news media and their commitment to inform the public so that the reading public will be promised consistency and accountability? Is there really an “invisible hand” of the free news media market that will determine ideological equilibrium in news reporting for the public’s benefit?

We must not forget that professional journalism is also a commercial enterprise. Free media also means the freedom to further commercialise media. Media oligarchs are born in the free media market. How can we ensure that a free press regulates itself from the concentration of press ownership? These questions may be getting far ahead of what could actually happen in Malaysia but are nonetheless searching questions to bring to light. In a media culture so bogged down by repression we might not appreciate the value of regulation.

There is another debate that all who demand freedom of the press must engage in: the definition, purpose and extent of state secrets or classified information and the meaning of national security. Rather than during war and emergency when it is (sometimes) justifiably invoked, national security is an all too common reason for the protection of “state secrets” during peacetime and the most easily abused.

The reason why the Printing Presses and Publishing Act (PPPA) continues to exist in Malaysia underscores how central the media is to the consolidation of state power, ultimately undermining the citizenry’s freedom to be informed, to think, engage and criticise. It might appear that we live in an age of seemingly unlimited access to information and democracy of content production. But we continue to know less than political and corporate powers that become powerful by keeping what they know from us.

My 5 cultural highlights of 2013

First published in The State on 2nd January 2014

1. Exhibition of the year. Traces: Ana Mendieta Retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, 24th September – 15 December 2013.

When Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from her New York City apartment in 1985, it might seem as if it had eclipsed her career. Her artist husband was rumoured to have pushed her out their apartment window during a violent argument. Comparisons between Mendieta’s dramatic death and her oftentimes morbid art were perhaps inevitable. But there was more to Mendieta than a tragic female artist as Traces, a comprehensive introduction to her career, showed. Mendieta was a self-identifying feminist artist who brought the movement’s perennial issues —violence against women and identity—to the centre of her work. At this retrospective of Mendieta’s brief but prolific career, one gets a sense of a woman who was on a primordial quest of finding herself in earth, stone, fire, and blood.

Germaine Greer once commented, disparagingly, about how female artists tended to nearly always use their (often naked) bodies in their artwork. Mendieta was not so different in that respect. Known as ‘earth-body’ art, Mendieta’s nude body merges with the natural world; in mud, into a tree, on grass. In a series of photographs, the outline of her body is eerily imprinted on the ground like an empty ancient burial site, set ablaze with the heart alight last. In another morbid photograph, a white sheet indiscreetly covers a blood-soaked body resembling a post-sacrificial scene. Mendieta has the posthumous power to spur women to take control of their own lives, but more significantly, how their lives will be remembered long after death if they can help it.

2. Film of the year 1: Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)

Most couples would be able to identify with the post-honeymoon romance of Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight; the last of Linklater’s romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Before Midnight has a more melancholic perspective on long-term relationships in contrast to the more hopeful and hopelessly romantic Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It is almost a cautionary tale of two beautiful much-in-love people who seem to be in a blissful ever after. The film is a triumph of sorts. Like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the film consists of conversations only. Little happens, and yet it tells us nearly everything about the mythical eternal fire of love threatened by an affair, diminishing youth, career let-downs, and parental guilt. Before Midnight and films like it (all talk, where nothing really happens) is a rare achievement in filmmaking for a medium so conducive to the spectacular.

3. Film of the year 2: Hannah Arendt (2012, Margarethe von Trotta)

Prior to Hannah Arendt, there have been few films about the life and work of a female philosopher, let alone a film featuring a woman thinking deeply about an epoch-defining moral problem. Von Trotta’s film reveals only but a glimpse of Arendt’s complex persona and work on morality, when she is faced with the task of writing an essay on Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping and trial in Jerusalem. Published in the New Yorker in 1953, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a thought piece into the imperceptible abyss of a Nazi officer’s feelings and actions that led millions of Jews to their deaths. With Eichmann obscured far into the background, Arendt and key protagonists—who would influence and reject her writing—play out a more interesting narrative in the foreground. We get to see Arendt, the thinker, encircled by the filmmaker’s over-use of cigarette smoke, the erstwhile youthful lover of Heidegger, and the intellectual provocateur. For a film about the Holocaust and the afterlife of the Second World War, it is highly unlikely to appeal to macho military history aficionados and all the better for it.

4. Read of the year: articles on gender and hyper-employment

There has been much talk about what our over-reliance on media technologies is doing to our everyday existence. For Ian Bogost in his article on The Atlantic, many of us are hyper-worked; being employed in one job while doing a number of other job-related things, (no) thanks to mobile technologies that allow us to do work anywhere, anytime without necessarily getting paid. A number of articles, more notably by Karen Gregory, Robin James, and Gordon Hull, have highlighted the feminised nature of hyperwork. They point to Marxist feminist analysis of preexisting under-valued feminised hyperwork in the hearth: the never-ending work of cleaning, cooking, caring, and secretarial duties in service of higher status and better paid men. Women, they argue, have been the hyperemployed before the the advent of advanced mobile technologies.

Media saturated societies have been blessed (or cursed) with the much feminised skill (or burden) of multi-tasking. Mobile technologies make it easier for us to check emails, listen to music, glance spreadsheets, and play games on the go. Sometimes all at the same time for the restless 21st century media user. The convenience that we gifted by perpetually improving media technologies may one day mean that the line between work and leisure is blurred most of the time. Steven Poole’s essay on the pitfalls of productivity coheres well with the discourse of hyperemployment. Technology-assisted hyperemployment is likely to change how we view paid/unpaid work and gender relations in profound ways in the very near future.

5. Documentary film of the year: The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)

Much ink and talk have been spent on The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary on Indonesian anti-Communist death squads who recall their blood-soaked heydays in 1965. It may be hotly tipped for a variety of awards and recipient of many accolades, but The Act of Killing is a towering achievement in the art of documentary film-making—a source of much debate on ethics and morality in its own right. Oppenheimer encountered his film subjects, a ragtag team of boastful mass murderers, quite by chance. Their openness to discuss their bloody exploits, or heroics in their view, on film take them on a journey of confronting their amorality and twisted heroic delusions. Often mixed with bizarre and fantastical proportions filled with personalised cinematic references. These references where the retired villains adopt with zeal, is where Oppenheimer’s documentary takes a remarkable turn of events. Will the re-enaction of their crimes under Oppenheimer’s occasionally manipulative gaze jolt the men into humanity and repentance? But why should they? Regardless of these difficult moral speculations, Oppenheimer’s ethnographic ethics of engaging with his subjects, in fluent Indonesian, and collaborating with them in the making of the film is enough to get the research geek (like yours truly) salivate in delight.

All singing and dancing – Islamic pop music in Indonesia

First published on The State

Pop singers like Vidi Aldiano are nothing like the nasyid* groups, the more conventional all-male singers of Islamic ditties. Young, fresh-faced and nary a skullcap in sight, he dresses like any other young man in urban Indonesia in ubiquitous t-shirt and slim-fitting jeans. The music is like any other unoriginal minor hit song cryogenically preserved since the 1990s, the only dissonance being his lyrics. He sings about Keagungan Tuhan (The Greatness of God), urging his fellow young Muslims to pray and praise God while a group of young women and men stop a game of basketball to start dancing cheerfully to an unmistakeably teeny-bopper choreography.

The song was released during Ramadan of 2009; following the tradition in the Muslim world, people and consumables become more ‘Islamic’ during this period. Among other things, female media personalities would don the headscarf, television stations broadcast religious dramas and documentaries, and the latest Islamic film would be released to coincide with a period of penance and reflection. There has been some commentary on the rise of Islamic pop singers who combine aspects of hip hop, gospel, and generic pop to produce updated versions of nasyid. Yet recently a secularised image of Islamic pop culture has been gaining a foothold in mainstream Indonesian culture, one that is stripped of its obvious Islamic symbolisms—headscarves, skull caps, Quranic inscriptions in Arabic, and even the colour green.

Alongside their more conventional Islamic musical contemporaries, there are rock bands who, on the surface and musically, are like any other ‘secular’ rock band but sing about strengthening the Islamic faith. Similar to Christian rock bands, an Islamic rock band replaces the song’s object of love and desire from ‘you’ to ‘God’. For example Gigi, an influential mainstream Indonesian rock band, looks like any other pop and rock ensemble. Broody, long-haired, and sometimes menacing, the singer belts out a tune about the gates of Heaven and how one enters it come the Day of Reckoning. In another particularly upbeat song, set incongruously against a dark chamber lit only by floating lightbulbs, the lead singer calls upon the listener to worship. Gigi’s electric guitars and pulsating drums recall inoffensive and edgeless mainstream North American rock bands such as Nickleback and 3 Doors Down. And the song itself? It is catchy.

Some may wonder whether bands like Gigi follow a similar aesthetic and politics as Islamic punk and heavy metal groups like The Kominas and al-Thawra. There are immediate commonalities: both are unconventional musical expressions that foreground the Islamic image of its performers and appeal to a youthful audience disenchanted with values incompatible with Islam encased in Western music. But following the crackdown on punk subculture in Indonesia, other anarchic and culturally subversive groups may be not looked upon too kindly.

The mainstreaming of Islamic popular culture is further evidenced by shifts in its temporality. Previously, Islamic television programming, music, and films were only released during Ramadan. Islamic popular culture prior to the 1990s was considered a commercially risky venture and unprofitable in Indonesia. If people needed ‘religion,’ they turned to religious leaders, prayer and Quranic recitation groups, and their local mosques. Today, however, they are found throughout the year. There are now questions of whether Indonesia is becoming more Islamic, or whether Islam has become more secularised.

Rather than receding from the public sphere, religion in an increasingly secularised world has been experiencing waves of revivalism. One unintended byproduct of secularisation of society is that religion became decentralised rather than being a power wielded solely by a central religious authority. Shifting increasingly towards the peripheries of power, religion has entered the marketplace en masse. These trends and the merging of images of modernity and Islam that were once considered contradictory have created what many describe as ‘Islamic modernities’ in a landscape of multiple modernities. The Islamic modernity seen in Indonesia is a political and cultural sensibility whereby a commitment to Islam is embraced alongside approximations of western notions of modernity.

Indonesia may not be globally known outside Southeast Asia for its pop culture or a key figure of the Islamic world, but it offers interesting clues to the way the biggest population of Muslims in the world engage with the geopolitics of post-9/11. The explosion of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia parallels the development of Christian popular culture in the US, simply because it has similar basic ingredients: the liberalisation and mass marketisation of religion. For decades since the mid-1960s, Indonesia was regarded as a beacon of Islamic moderation. With communism held firmly under the lid (with the help of the US government, no less), the Suharto regime also ensured that Islam remained unpoliticised and ‘non-extreme.’ Unpolitical Islam was (and still is) a good thing for secular politicos and commentators who were wary of revivalist Islam’s power to inspire Muslims to rise, in myriad and often unpredictable ways, against western hegemonic dominance. But following the resignation of Suharto, public and political manifestations of Islam gained momentum and reclaimed the mediascape.

The big question is, then, who listens to Islamic pop music? Are they anything like the followers of Christian rock music? Do they belong to a parallel universe sequestered from mainstream culture? The 1990s witnessed the bourgeoisification of the Muslim middle classes who equated the Veblenian display of public piety with social status. Since then, the steady march of mass consumerism finds itself face to face with an increasingly conscientious set of consumers keen on making spiritual meaning of their consumption. Conditions were then ripe for the proliferation of all things Islamic: fashion, comic books, make-up, and even toothpaste could become Shari’a compliant and reassuringly halal.

For some, it is frustratingly difficult to equate Islamic consumption with actual piety. Consumption of media has become widespread rather than specialised (and sacralised) to particular space and time, and too convenient. Spiritual respite is only a click or button away, rather than being a ritualised series of practices. Savvy marketers of Islamic pop culture sell their wares not only for Muslims but for everybody, as the products are imbued with good universal values rather than those exclusive to Muslims.

Although there have been plenty of debates decrying the commercialisation of Islam, one can never really draw a clear line distinguishing between what is sacred and profane, religious and secular, worship and entertainment. It is not seen as good enough to assume that consumers of Islamic popular culture are passive recipients of God’s message, pure and transparent. The answer may lie in the media theories of Katz and McQuail who propose that consumers of media are better understood through examining why they consume certain media products, and how they gratify certain desires and pleasures. Thus the need to appear pious may be too straightforward for the huge swaths of discerning and increasingly sophisticated Muslim consumer of media in Indonesia.

The growth of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia matters a great deal when we think about the global impact of hegemonic media representations of Muslims. Since the attacks on 9/11, the Bali bombings of 2002, and the release of Islamophobic films Submission in 2004 and Fitna in 2008 by Dutch filmmaker and far-right politician Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders respectively, producers of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia have become emboldened by a new kind of urgency, one that is characterised by the need to produce new, progressive, and thoroughly modern images of Muslims and their cherished values. The rise of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia joins the ranks of successful nasyid groups in neighbouring Malaysia and to a lesser extent, the Arabic-singing rock bands of Thailand, who are embraced by a subset of the Muslim middle-class and working class.

The production of Islamic music and other forms of popular culture such as Muslim youth-oriented novels and cinema can be seen as a concerted effort of ‘writing back’ against dangerous Muslim stereotypes, and are probably directed to an imagined West itself. But Islamic media is as much an internal circuit of representations for producers and consumer who engage with issues related to cleavages within Islam, gender and sexuality, and capitalism as it is a dialogue with the West.

*Nasyid is derived from the Arabic nashid (plural: anashid) for ‘song’ or ‘hymn.’