She’s eight years old, but Anita Nurhasanah is small for her age. With her tiny, squeaky voice, the little girl from Yogyakarta could easily pass for a kindergartner.
Don’t be fooled. When Anita starts her sermon, her childish demeanor gives way to an adult-like seriousness. Evangelizing on various children-appropriate topics, she tosses in Koranic verses and hadith quotations.
A year ago, Anita placed third in a television show called “Pildacil,” short for “Pemilihan Da’i Cilik,” or “junior preacher’s competition.” Competing in the youngest group of participants, which includes kids aged 7 to 12, Anita won a Rp 25 million ($2,600) cash prize. The show was produced by ANTV.
Back home, Anita became a local celebrity. Her schedule for this year’s fasting month filled up quickly, as people sought her out to give sermons for children and adults alike.
The show, which ended last October, as well as a second program for participants aged 17 to 25, was a hit, network spokeswoman Frisanti Karlina told the Jakarta Globe. The station is now in talks to prepare new seasons of each of them.
Children’s advocates like Seto Mulyadi, a child psychologist and chairman of the National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak), have expressed concern over these kinds of commercial competitions involving children. But Pildacil’s Facebook page was still full of messages from people asking for next auditions to begin.
In the world’s most populous Muslim country, there seems an unquenchable demand for preachers, or da’i, in all sizes and styles.
Preaching for the masses
The 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise and fall of mass preachers like Zainuddin Muhammad Zain, known as Zainuddin MZ, and Abdullah Gymnastiar, or AA Gym, both of whom coupled their religious teachings with light humor.
“But after Zainuddin and AA Gym’s stars began to fade, people, especially TV stations, realized there weren’t a lot of candidates out there to replace them,” said Asrori Karni, a journalist and editor at the current affairs magazine Gatra. Asrori, who has been monitoring Islamic culture in Indonesia for the past decade, was speaking at a public forum at Salihara cultural center earlier this month.
Zainuddin MZ was once known as “the million-follower preacher,” but he lost his mass appeal when he became involved in politics and then in a rape scandal. He was also accused of having an affair with dangdut singer Aida Saskia.
AA Gym rose to fame in the wake of Zainuddin’s decline, but his time in the spotlight lasted less than a decade. His fall from grace came when his marriage to a second wife was made public.
“His followers were mostly women and housewives. They quickly denounced him,” Asrori said.
“At his height, AA Gym’s sermons were often relayed by different TV stations at the same time,” Asrori added. “His name alone could guarantee high ratings.”
The rise of ‘Dakhwatainment’
A lack of suitable replacements for the so-called mass preachers meant that television stations had to compete against one another to find the next “preaching sensation.” Hence the public auditions to find new talent.
“But television is its own industry, and its culture relies on being instant, superficial and entertaining,” said Yasraf Amir Piliang, a cultural studies lecturer from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).
Yasraf mentioned some of today’s most popular clerics: Soleh Mahmud, known as Ustad Solmed, who started out as an actor in a religious-themed soap opera; and Muhammad Nur Maulana, or Ustad Maulana, whose sermons hinge on delivering one catchphrase after another.
Another name was Jeffry Al Buchori, or Ustad Uje, a celebrity-cum-cleric who uses slang words during his sermons.
Cleric Luthfi Fathallah, one of the judges for ANTV’s “Da’i Muda,” the show for young adult preachers, said that for the television audience, preachers had to consider the entertainment factor.
“They have to offer something unique, and the more interesting the better,” Luthfi said.
That formula was evidently used by Faisal Sofyan, 24, who showed up to his audition in silver, high-heeled boots. The part-time radio DJ from Ciamis, West Java, tried to impress the judges by singing his sermons.
“I can also use puppets, like ventriloquist,” he said.
The gimmicks worked, as the judges put Faisal through to the next round.
Gone too far?
The lack of “qualified” religious shows was evident during the recent Muslim fasting month. Most television stations air comedy and variety shows with occasional appearances by popular preachers during sahur, or the predawn meal, and in the moments approaching sunrise , when people break their fasts.
“This year is a culmination of the decline in sermon quality we get on television,” Asrori said.
Earlier in the month, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) issued seven television shows with warnings for inappropriate content, he said.
“In two of the seven [shows], it was the preachers themselves who were censored,” Asrori said.
Solmed committed multiple offenses when he discussed Islam and marital sexual relations in detail during his 4 a.m. show on Global TV last month.
In another episode, Solmed insulted a comedian on a different show, saying, “If the devil was created to tempt men … then Narji was created to be reviled by men.”
Another popular preacher, Ustad Taufiqurrahman, who is famous for his rhyming skills, earned a warning for making up degrading poems about transgender people. He also got one for his attempt at a humorous analogy on the sexual relations of married couples during Ramadan.
The seemingly unstoppable torrent lewd jokes by comedians and preachers that continually make their way into Indonesian families’ living rooms also enraged the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), which has demanded a boycott of shows that offend.
“MUI urges people to boycott programs that use the name of Ramadan but feature content that is far from the spirit of Ramadan,” Sinansari Encip, the head of MUI’s information and communication commission, said earlier this month.
“Ironically, some religious figures who appear [in the shows] get carried away with the mean spirit of comedy shows,” he said.
According to KPI data, during the first week of Ramadan alone, 31 shows were reported for inappropriate content.
Better than extremism?
“Popular religious shows do not always have a negative effect,” Asrori said.
“It provides an alternative and certainly a bigger appeal than extreme or hard-line teachings.”
He also said that nowadays it was easier to apply public control over popular preachers who were out of line.
“Look at AA Gym or Zainuddin, each of whom lost his charm as soon as he did something that was deemed unfavorable by the public,” he said.
“Compare that to clerics at the local level who abuse their authority and allegedly become child molesters, for example,” Asrori added.
He mentioned Habib Hasan bin Jafar Assegaf, the leader of Nurul Mustofha Assembly in Jakarta, and Sheikh Puji from Central Java.
Saidiman Ahmad from the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) added that the multitude of clerics would only enrich Indonesia’s pluralistic Islamic culture.
“Besides, in the beginning religions are spread using easy-to-understand and popular manners,” he said. “If these popular clerics do not exist then it is possible that sooner or later people will abandon religion.”