Youth and Pop Culture in Indonesian Islam

This article written by Claudia Nef Saluz, PhD Candidate University of Zurich,

This article was also published in Studia Islamika.



Since the 1990s the development of an Islamic pop culture has taken place in Indonesia. Islam has become part of an extensive consumer culture with the trendy veil (jilbab gaul) as one of its most conspicuous symbols. The term “pop culture” is used to reflect the disappearance of oppositions (Gemünden 1995: 235) and follows Andy Warhol’s comment on pop: “The Pop idea, after all, was that anybody could do anything” (Warhol and Hackett 1990:134). This definition of pop culture by Andy Warhol implies a notion of democracy; anyone can produce a masterpiece, taking its inspiration from the everyday (Gemünden 1995: 244). Applying this idea of one of the greatest pop artists to the changes to the face of Islam currently taking place in Indonesia, I use the term “Islamic pop culture” to show that a form of Islam has developed that stands for a form of Islam that is not opposed to neither consumer culture, nor to the local past, nor to the government, the west or the Islamic influences from the Middle East. Everything seems combinable. One can be creative in constructing one’s identity as devout Muslim, a fan of the rock band Metallica and as a believer in Javanese ghosts. The neon pink sticker on one’s motorbike helmet, worn over a bright green veil, saying “Allah is Great” can appear alongside other stickers saying “I’m sexy” or “Punk”. Young people can eat at Mc Donald’s before going to the mosque for praying and after that go home to watch the new episodes of the daily Islamic soap opera Hidayah and then switch to an Indian Bollywood movie.

From a methodological point of view, this research combines the method the classical anthropological fieldwork conducted among students of the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta in 2005 – 2006 with methods from the field of cultural studies.

Islamic youth culture – a lifestyle

In the constant process of hybridization in Javanese society young people play a central role. Nilan and Feixa point to youth cultures as laboratories for hybrid cultures (2006: 2). No matter where in the world, the lives of young people fit less and less within a linear model of change. The transitions between education and work, dating and mating, and childhood and adulthood are increasingly prolonged (Nilan and Feixa 2006: 7). As a consequence participation in youth cultures can no longer be characterized as a brief period, restricted to a limited period in the teens and early twenties. The late modern extension of youth culture practice has to be taken in two chronological directions, downwards towards late childhood and upwards towards the mid- to late-thirties (ibd. 7).

My interest lies in the social construction of identity where young people take an active role. Like young people everywhere, their construction of local youth style signifies the fractured process of identity-formation in an uncertain world. Islamic faith may provide a strong and reassuring sense of certainty to those youths committed to it, but there are other aspects of their lives to be negotiated which are not as easily ordered by religious faith alone. Because of the rapid socio-economic transformation, transitions to adulthood are increasingly fractured (Nilan 2006: 92).

Young Muslims combine lifestyle characteristics, such as consumption practices, with religious faith. They do, however, not only frame their identities in relation to in their eyes western lifestyle products and trends but also in relation to influences of global Islam. Young Muslims thus draw upon religious law at the same time as on global popular trends to create hybrid youth products and practices that serve to anchor the young person securely in the world of Islam and teen popular culture (Nilan 2006: 107). A market for Islamic products was therefore able to develop where Islamic lifestyle products are sold such as Islamic magazines, nasyid music, clothes, halal cosmetics, stickers or pins. Young people in Indonesia, as elsewhere, have therefore no choice but to choose. By choosing what they consume, young people construct their identity, for example as young, trendy, Muslim and Indonesian. According to Nilan, Islamic youth culture in Indonesia constitutes a “third space” that is not shared by non-Muslim Indonesian age peers, westerners or adults (2006: 93). They can thus construct their identity as fundamentally different from other Indonesian youths.[1]

Clothes in general are very important for identity construction, especially among young people. According to Schulte Nordholt, clothes help us to make our individual bodies into social beings and to communicate who we are. Clothes can be seen as our social and cultural skin (1997: 3). As veils are conspicuous symbols in framing one’s identity they play an important role in identity construction and the construction of otherness. Young Muslims in Indonesia, for example the students of Gadjah Mada University, have different choices to express their identity, for example by wearing a certain model of veil. There is no neutral choice concerning the veil. The trendy veil is a testimony to how cultural forms are generated – allowing young women to express their multiple identities as fashionable Muslims. They shape it through acts of choices. To simply wear a veil is however not enough. Meaning, to the veil for example, is attributed through action. The attributed meaning is not stable but constantly changing depending on context. I adapt the idea held by Goffman that the world is a stage where all people merely play different parts (Turner 1994: xiii). According to Goffman, observers thus get clues from the conduct and appearance of others which allow them to apply previous similar experiences with other individuals to that which they observe – to apply stereotypes (Goffman 1959: 13). Information about the individual helps therefore to define a situation and one may therefore know how best to react within it. In the case of veiling, this may mean that when seeing a veiled girl one can tell that she is Muslim and act according to this by adapting one’s behaviour. “A “performance” may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants” (Goffman 1959: 26). According to Goffman, information about an individual helps us to define a situation, as this enables us to know in advance what to expect (Goffman 1959: 13). Goffman’s idea stands in accordance with the approach of Cooley’s looking-glass self, stating that we imagine how others see us and look at ourselves through the eyes of others and therefore adapt our strategies and therefore the meaning we attach (Helle 2006: 54).

Young Muslims select symbols and rituals of Islamic culture as well as symbols and rituals of western culture. This form of hybridity, of combining global and local influences, challenges the assumption that cultural meeting points must signify relations of domination, this being the classic position of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, based on Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. This view of “youth culture as resistance” proposes that the dominant groups in society, who possess the most valued forms of cultural capital, create and define hegemonic culture which serves to support and enhance their powerful position (Nilan and Feixa 2006: 9).

Trendy Islam through Islamic mass media

The role of the media is important in making Islamic symbols become trendy. After the reformasi, the fall of Suharto, the media market was further liberalised and many magazines started to be published that were either forbidden during the time of Suharto’s media censorship or only published illegally in small numbers. Also, the Islamic press[2] became more diverse at that time and started to occupy an increasingly strong position in the Indonesian print media market. At that time the number of Islamic magazines increased and with it their reader segments became more diversified and more and more specialized along different parameters such as age, gender, social group and religious conviction (Swastika 2003: 12).

The Islamic press is not a new phenomenon but has existed since the beginning of the twentieth century, with the rise of the ideas of reformation that had developed in the Middle East, mainly in Egypt. In general many Islamic magazines wrote about modernity and development. Towards the end of the 1980s, in the context of the student protests, in the academic environment a new generation of students started to create their own Islamic media, for example Hidayatullah, Sabili and Ummi. Also during this time, the big commercial editors began to see Muslims, especially young ones, as a potential target group. In 1986 the editor of the women’s magazine Kartini, for example, launched Amanah, a new magazine with a special focus on Muslim families and Islamic content. Amanah can be considered as a pioneer of an Islamic press that is easy to read, popular and funny, with a strong orientation towards business and earning money. Only one-third of the content consisted of Islamic articles, with the rest being popular entertainment. Three years after Amanah, Ummi, another commercial Islamic magazine targeting women was launched. As this magazine was successful, the editors of Ummi created a new magazine Annida, targeting Muslim girls. In the style of other magazines for the youth such as Hai or Gadis, Annida uses the language of the youth, bahasa gaul. Slang terms that are commonly used in these magazines are for example banget, lho, tapi, kok, nggak or nih. It is colourful and fun and contains a lot of advertisements for cosmetics, shops selling veils and Muslim clothes, Islamic music and so on.

As publishing became even less legally complicated in 1999, many more popular Islamic magazines started to be published, mostly targeting young Muslim women such as Nikah, Noor, Karima, El-Fata, Puteri, Muslimah, Permata and many others. The formula that was used was “to serve Islam with a smile” (“menyuguhkan Islam dengan senyum”) (Swastika 2003: 13).

To give a concrete example of how these trendy Islamic magazines make the veil and Islamic symbols in general become popular and fashionable, I will look closely at the February 2006 edition of the magazine Muslimah, addressed to young Muslim girls.

On the cover of the magazine, the title Muslimah is written in white and bright pink, decorated with yellow flowers on the side, the subtitle reads “Trend of the Islamic youth” (Tren remaja Islam) and below the title there is an image of one of Indonesia’s young celebrities Zaskia, an 18-year-old girl, wearing pretty Muslim clothes and a fancy veil that is decorated with a band of small seashells. On page twenty we find the cover story about Zaskia, illustrated with photos, showing her with different veils and dresses. In the following article she tells us that it is very easy to wear a veil nowadays and that many artists decide to make the veil become part of their identity and everyday appearance (banyak banget artis-artis yang menjadikan jilbab sebagai identitas penampilan mereka sehari-hari). The article then tells how the soap opera actress lived in glamour, wearing short and very tight clothes, going clubbing and to rave parties, even trying a little bit of alcohol, now admitting that it tasted really bad and that she would never try it again. She emphasises however that even though she was partying she never tried any drugs. This would maybe be too bad for her image. After a while, however, she suddenly realised that her life at that time, and that of her friends too, was empty and so she decided to return to the right track, the one of Allah. She changed her appearance, started to wear Muslim clothes and a veil. Finally she says she got back to the right way and was saved. She stopped clubbing and says that now, as she wears the veil, she is protected from many of the bad things in life. The veil just makes her feel safe and comfortable, Alhamdulillah, praise be to God, she says, smiling happily.

In almost all Muslim magazines there are reports of artists and how they were on the wrong track but all of a sudden realised this and changed their ways, started to veil and wear Muslim clothes. In an interview with the UGM sociology professor Mbak Tia, I was told that Indonesians would forgive many sins of celebrities, such as drug or alcohol use or almost any sort of scandal if they just cried on camera, pleading that they were on the wrong track but had now found their faith again and would return to the good Islamic way of life. Of course it is even more effective if this statement is underlined by starting to wear a veil. There are many examples of artists who did that, she tells me. You only have to turn on the TV or read popular magazines.

Besides the artist report of Zaskia, there are several other rubrics in the magazine Muslimah. There is however not one single photo of a woman or a girl without the veil. A large part is dedicated to fashion, for example showing how to look cool by wearing a veil for every type of personality. You can look sporty, like a hip-hop girl, a sweet girly, or ethnic girl. The veil is by no means seen as uniform in these magazines, but as something that can help to express a personal, individual style and makes you look interesting. Besides fashion, there are also styling tips, including which model of veil and which colours look good with a certain face form. One example of a styling tip is that girls with darker skin should avoid dark coloured veils, such as dark brown, as this makes the skin look even darker. Also with the veil, the beauty ideal is still white skin. Other articles include information on how to make chocolate sweets and explanations of the health benefits of drinking milk. A further long article is about cellular phones and the phenomenon of trendy “hand phones” (fenomena HP gaul), and about trendy flip-flops. Interestingly, the feet are not covered by the girls in this magazine, which does not seem to be important. Also the girl in the photo story wears a pink veil and jeans and wants to break up with her boyfriend, as she has seen him with another girl. In this edition the magazine Muslimah also looks for candidates who could become the model of the year 2006. Among other participation criteria, one has to wear a veil.

Besides many more articles, for example on an Islamic reggae band, there are also articles on Islamic issues, such as about a modern Islamic boarding school, Islamic short stories and an article about Muslims living in Eritrea. Besides articles, the magazine also has advertisements in it, for example for cosmetic products or shops selling Muslim clothes.

By looking through these magazines, the image that is transmitted of these young girls is a very good one, often held in opposition to the sinful and empty life of girls who have not yet found the way to Allah. The veiled girls are shown as friendly, merry, polite and having a good character without being boring. It is shown that by wearing a veil, one can only win and does not have to give up anything that is seen as enjoyable. Through these kinds of texts, Islam is seen to have a friendly and trendy image, and not to be a punishing religion. Instead of using the argument that if one does not veil one will go to hell, the veil is made attractive through the transmission of positive connotations linked to it. By reading and looking at magazines such as Muslimah, the question that arises is to what point has the veil just turned into a fashion accessory and to what extent is it still connected with religious convictions.

Veiled TV stars

It is hard to measure, as to how far TV contributes in making Islamic symbols become attractive. It seems evident that many television programs and producers of soap operas or series have realised that Islam sells and see Muslims as a target group. According to Nuning it is only a rather recent phenomena that women and girls wearing veils are seen in TV. Nuning is a writer for a magazine of cultural studies in Yogyakarta and also a lecturer in media studies at UGM. According to her, the soap operas and series showing veiled women only started around Ramadan 2002 and only in the last two years began to become really popular. Another recent phenomenon is that of artist veiling and popular religious teachers giving speeches on TV.

The Islamic soap operas and TV series are very interesting, she tells me, because within their story lines there exist mostly two types of women, one type being the ones wearing a veil, playing the good, soft and moral part, caring lovingly for everyone and on the other hand there are the ones not wearing a veil, living an easy live, causing disorder, mostly having an unbalanced and labile character. The clothes these women wear are rather sexy, clearly imitating the western clothing style or at least the way in which Indonesians imagine typical westerners dress. I myself have never seen a soap opera where the roles were switched, although it may happen in a storyline that a veiled woman makes mistakes, but she is always quick to regret her actions and to beg Allah for forgiveness. The equation “veiled woman equals good woman” and “unveiled woman equals bad woman” is obvious in these soaps and TV series. This is of course not directly transferable to the practices of everyday life, but the tendency to see veiled women as having higher moral principles was confirmed by almost all of my interview partners. Many people also say that the veil prevents women from behaving badly as they are under stronger social pressure and are therefore expected to behave well.

As the demand for veiled actresses in Islamic soaps and other TV productions has increased because they were a good business, attracting a large public and generating money through good advertising rates, veiling is no longer deemed to oppose a career as a TV star and could even be a criterion to be chosen for a certain role. I do however not see this as a one-way process of either the public wanting to see veiled actresses or the TV stations suddenly starting to show Islamic programs, but as a constant interaction resulting in Islamic symbols becoming increasingly popular and trendy and associated with a good image, at least among the majority of the population.

Nasyid – Islamic pop music

Apart from Islamic TV productions, Islamic novels, Islamic magazines and newspapers, other media sources have also contributed to make the veil become popular, for example the nasyid groups, making music with Islamic lyrics. The style of music these groups make can vary from pop music, using drums and electric guitars, to reggae music such as the band “Mecca2Medina” featured in the February 2006 edition of “Muslimah”. Some however say that it is best to only use the instruments that existed in the time Muhammad lived or simply not to use instruments at all, only the voice. All of these music groups have one thing in common: they make music to praise Allah, based on Islamic teachings. One interview respondent told me that these songs are love songs for Allah (lagu-lagu cinta untuk Allah). Some of these groups sing in Indonesian, some in Arabic, whilst others may even sing in English.

There are very famous nasyid bands in Indonesia, such as Justice Voice, The Fikr or Ar-Ruhul Jadid. Besides many male nasyid groups, there are also female groups that are famous in Indonesia and of course the singers are veiled. Such groups once again help to make Islam, Islamic teachings and also the lifestyle that goes with it become popular. One can attend nasyid concerts, download nasyid ring tones for one’s cellular phone or join fan clubs. If you go to a market in Yogyakarta selling pirated DVDs, CDs and VCDs, you can choose from a large variety of different nasyid groups and these discs sell well. There are however not only famous nasyid bands in Indonesia but also many small groups; almost every mosque usually has at least one band. Contests and many small concerts are organised, especially during Ramadan, when people gather to break fast together.

Islamic pop music is however not a new phenomenon in Indonesia. In this context Indonesia’s first true entertainment superstar, Rhoma Irama has to be mentioned. He was the first one who was clearly significant, beyond a relatively small economic or intellectual elite, to a large mass audience (Frederick 1982: 103). Especially in the years 1975 – 1981, he was enormously influential and has changed the face of Indonesian music (ibd. 108). Not only his work but also his outward appearance was strongly influenced by Islam – he had neatly trimmed hair and frequently wore a kind of Islamic dress in an “exotic Middle Eastern type” (ibd. 115). Rhoma can therefore be seen as the father of Islamic pop music; however, he was not the first to make music with an Islamic text. According to Frederick, Ellya for example, a famous Indonesian dangut singer, had already included lines like “Let’s go to the mosque together and pray” in songs from the late 1950s – the practice however never developed beyond an occasional mentioning of prayer or proper behaviour. Rhoma Irama, however, moved boldly into the arena of what can be designated as dakwah music, that is, music with a conscious Islamic message. He went as far as to include Koranic phrases in his compositions (Frederick 1982: 116). Just like the nasyid bands, Rhoma Irama emphasized the validity of Moslem values in everyday life. Besides music, he also produced films based on Islamic values, and became very popular. Antariksa, now writing and working in KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre in Yogyakarta, told me that when he was young and still lived in a village, he went once a year to town with his family to watch a film by Rhoma Irama. People loved him.

As Islamic music, Islamic TV productions and Islamic magazines have become popular, Islam as a whole has become popular, and with it the veil has become popular. Shortly said, it is trendy to be Muslim and to show it.

Islamic consumerism

There is an ever expanding range of products for young Muslims. These products are similar to those designed for young people in many other places of the world and, thus, young Indonesian Muslims do not have to miss out on consuming. The trendy veil is just one example for the possibility of consuming, fulfilling the needs of being trendy and practicing a religious duty at the same time. Consumption is one of the crucial, defining experiences of the age, whether they are devout Muslims or not (Nilan 2006: 94). The city of Yogyakarta is filled with huge advertising billboards that dominate the cityscape. It seems to be difficult for anyone, and especially for young people such as students, to avoid the discourse of avid consumption. As Pam Nilan writes in the article “The reflexive youth culture of devout Muslim youth in Indonesia” there is “membership of urban youth style culture for Islamist youth typically signalled on the body, what you carry, where you go and what you do, how you speak and what you talk about, what music you prefer and who your heroes and heroines are” (Nilan 2006: 94).

According to Turner, identity is constructed through consumption: “The modern consuming self is a representational being. It is the surface of the body which is the target of advertising and self-promotion, just as it is the body surfaces which are the site of stigmatization” (Turner 1994: xiii). Any Islamic symbol that is consumed can therefore be seen as an item of identity construction and representing the self. According to Turner “the notion of embodiment suggests that all of the fundamental processes of conception, perception, evaluation and judgement are connected to the fact that human beings are embodied social agents. It is not the case simply that human beings have a body but they are involved in the development of their bodies over their own life-cycle; in this respect, they are bodies” (Turner 1994: xi). The body is therefore becoming increasingly central to the modern person’s sense of self-identity.

In his book “The consuming body” Paci Falk writes one chapter “Selling good(s): on the genealogy of modern advertising” (1994: 151-185) that is especially interesting in the context of the economic perspective and the marketing of Islamic symbols. He notes that “Modern advertising operates almost exclusively with the positive register, depicting the happy and content soap user for whom there is always room even in a cramped lift rather than the distressed non user who is left out” (155). “The outcome must establish a positive link between the identified product and the “good” that is characterizes it. The building of this link implies a metamorphosis in which the product transforms into representation – and it is this that modern advertising is basically about” (156). “This story is about how this world of goods becomes visible to the consumer and how this visibility constitutes a direct consumer-product relationship” (157).

With the liberalisation of the media the time seems to be ripe for modern advertising, as modern advertising requires the development of as many channels of mass communication as possible, such as TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards or posters. This is, according to Turner (1994: 159), necessary so that the message can be addressed to the potential consumer en masse but also that the consumer can be simultaneously “singled out” and addressed as an individual. According to Turner it is “this tendency to single out the individual that can be regarded as the distinctive characteristic of modern advertising. The individualizing mode of communication creates an imaginary relationship between the assumed consumer and the identified product that is personalized by means of positive characteristics, a relationship which appears to every consumer to be as unique as a romantic love affair” (160).

Islamic symbols such as the veil have been the target of modern marketing strategies. The times seem to be over when religiosity seemed to limit consumption. In her thesis “Konsumerisme religius: Etika agama dalam etos konsumsi” (Religious consumerism: The ethic of religion in the consumptive ethos), Sita Hidayah departs from the assumption that since around 2000, Islamic values have been sold and Islamic symbols bought and that Islam has become part of the extensive consumer culture existing in Indonesia. Hidayah sees the new styles of veils as the most striking example of this phenomenon (Hidayah 2004: 5ff).

Let us look at how the veil is advertised in Yogyakarta and how this “romantic love affair”, as Turner notes, is becoming be established.

The modern forms of advertising operating with positive registers have had a big influence in making the veil become popular. Not only the teachers of the Koran school started to inform people that one should wear the veil, but also business people started to realize that one could make money by selling veils and Islamic clothes. Young Muslims in Indonesia in particular are a group with large potential buying power. In Yogyakarta there are many shops specializing in Muslim clothes, wherein many stalls in the market sell only veils and veil accessories, whilst others specialise in general Muslim fashion. Also department stores such as Matahari have special sections where Muslim fashion is sold. All of these shops and stalls do not just sell veils and Muslim clothes because they believe that it is a good thing for Muslim women to veil, hence for religious reasons, but also, or mainly, to earn money. Islamic symbols have become a lucrative business.

As previously mentioned, Muslim clothes and veils follow fashion trends in material, colour and cut. Fashion designers show their latest models at fashion parades. The largest designer association is the APPMI Asosiasi Perancang Pengusaha Mode Indonesia (Designer Association of Indonesian Fashion Entrepreneurs). The carefully selected designers that join this organisation work together with Gramedia, the largest bookshop and book publisher in Indonesia, and constantly publish books showing the latest fashion trends. The shops selling Muslim fashion therefore also follow the fashion trends. In Yogyakarta some stores have focused especially on young customers, with the biggest and best known being Karita.

The recently very successful store Karita with its pink décor and trendy posters opened in 2002 and has two floors, but the manager told me they already have plans to extend, as it is very successful. Most of the customers are women, only a few of them bringing their husbands along. They browse through the ground floor, with its wide range of clothes such as long embroidered skirts, all sorts of different tops reaching from batik to silk before heading upstairs, where they explore shelves of scarves and hats in every colour imaginable and cloth, as well as accessories to go with them. All of the clothes sold there have one thing in common – they are Muslim fashion. Some items are tight, some are loose, and they all have two main functions: the first being to cover the aurat, the part of the body that the Koran requires believers to cover, and the second and probably more important function, to make the wearer look good (Champagne 2004: 15).

When I went to Karita for the second time to look at all of the different garment styles again, I chose a relatively quiet morning in order to have time to talk to the shop assistant and to ask her which styles were trendy at the moment. She told me that currently veils in light pink and gold were selling very well because they would easily match with many styles of dresses. The young woman wearing a beautiful golden-coloured veil decorated with a band of pearls told me that people normally decorate their veils with bands or pearls in a matching colour. She then showed me some of the latest models and demonstrated how to wear each of them. I was sitting there for more than half an hour and she placed all different models of veils on my head and after every model exclaimed how sweet I looked wearing this or that model of veil, telling me which ones especially matched the colour of my skin or the shape of my face or the shirt I was wearing. Finally I ended up buying a light purple one. She told me that she often helps girls with choosing veils and shows them different styles of wearing them. Bigger groups can also benefit from the opportunity to have a veil demonstration at their house, school or mosque for free. She really was a good seller and of course only mentioned the positive aspects of the veil and how it made me look nice. I did not have the feeling while sitting in this shop that the veil had any religious connotation, it was more like buying a handbag or a new shirt.

The whole concept of the shop works with positive appeals, they do not only sell veils but also sell images of sweet, good looking, stylish and trendy young women. Furthermore, their posters are displayed around the city, advertising for Karita and showing a sweet smiling girl with a beautiful veil, with a slogan below saying: “Muslim PENTING bergaya” (It is important for a Muslim to be stylish).

The name of another shop for young Muslims near UGM is Jilbabers (“Veilers”) also in a trendy design clearly addressed to a certain subgroup – to young trendy girls who wear a jilbab and have money to spend. None of these shops uses negative appeals to advertise their clothes. They advertise exclusively with positive appeals, making the veil look friendly and trendy.

Looking at the staff or the clients of such shops, it becomes visible that spending a lot of money on clothes or veils and to trying to look as good as possible does not seem to be in opposition with Islam or with being a good Muslim. At least Tara, a UGM student of the medical faculty, who likes to buy different veils and spend money on them tells me that at least she is spending her money on something “good”. I realised that many fellow students followed this logic, that is, that it is better to spend money on veils than on shoes for example because the veil is something “good”, something that Allah likes. One can therefore spend money on Islamic clothing without having to have a bad conscience. Islam is not seen as opposing consumption by most girls wearing trendy veils. Some of the girls wearing long veils or cadars however told me that one should not consume too much, that one should be happy without too many material goods.

A problem however that some see when spending too much money on veils and fashion in general is that one of the reasons to veil, namely not to attract men, is fading away. Many Indonesians do not agree however that one should not attract attention by veiling. In their eyes it is written in the Koran and Sunna that a woman should cover her hair but not that she should not look stylish and trendy by wearing her veil. In the eyes of most students consumption and Islam are not in opposition. In the eyes of many, one can be trendy and fulfil ones religious duty at the same time – thanks to the new good-looking veils.

“Islamising” Products – Islam sells

Not only are Islamic symbols sold with success, but also the marketing agents of other products have realised that Muslims are a potential target group. The good image of Islam is therefore used to sell all sorts of products. For the marketing of these products Islamic symbols are used, such as the colour green (Muhammad’s favourite colour), calligraphic writing or models wearing Muslim clothes, and of course women wearing veils. Advertisers not only use the good image that Islam in Indonesia nowadays commonly has, but also help a great deal in constructing and reconstructing it in a continuing interaction. The consequence of this process is the reinforcement of the good, polite, friendly, peaceful and trendy image of Islam in Indonesia, as not only Muslims but also big marketing companies seem to benefit from it. Islam is becoming popular and sells.

In Yogyakarta for example, an omnipresent advertisement in the city in 2005 and 2006 was a banner of a shampoo advertisement showing the famous Indonesian model and actress Inneke Koesherawati who, in the 1980s, wore quite sexy clothes but now wears a veil. The shampoo she advertises for is Sunsilk hijau (green) and was specially developed for women wearing a veil. It should make the scalp stay fresh and stop the loss of hair. The colour green is not chosen accidentally but rather because it is associated with Islam. It is quite unique for a shampoo advertisement that one cannot see the hair of the model – a woman with veil. The veil she is wearing of course suits her very well and matches her greenish dress. Below the shampoo there is a slogan stating: “Hati sejuk, kepala dingin” (A fresh (satisfied) heart, a cool head). Inneke is smiling happily down upon the streets of Yogyakarta. Other shampoo brands have followed the example of Sunsilk and have also developed special shampoos for Muslim women wearing veils.

Apart from shampoo, some cosmetic brands also focus on the needs of Muslim women, for example Wardah, with the slogan Kosmetika suci dan aman (Holy and safe cosmetics), also written in green and using calligraphic writing in the logo design. These products guarantee that they are free from pork or other ingredients that are forbidden to Muslims – they are halal. Besides the usual cosmetic products such as lipsticks, make-up and eye shadow, many whitening products are also sold, as it is trendy in Indonesia to be as white as possible, not only for Muslim girls.

When it comes to selling products in the name of Islam one man is especially popular and has become rich by this strategy: Aa Gym, as he is commonly known, or Abdullah Gymnastiar. He is a very famous religious teacher in Indonesia, often holding sermons in Friday prayers or speaking on TV, where he has his own show. Besides this lucrative occupation, he also produced his own brand Qolbu, which can be translated as “heart” or “soul”. He publishes books for example carrying the title “Jagalah hati: step by step manajement Qolbu” (Guard your heart: managing your soul step-by-step). There are books for beginners in “manajement Qolbu”, but also those for more advanced readers having already read the first book. If one has problems in the process of becoming a better person through Islamic philosophy, this is what these books promise: one can contact Aa Gym’s team by email and write about one’s problems. Besides many books, he has also created Qolbu Cola, similar to Coca Cola but “better for your soul”. He has special Qolbu supermarkets in Bandung, Qolbu cafés where one can drink Qolbu Cola and read books about Qolbu, and he has even designed Qolbu motorbikes. All these products are sold in the name of Islam and are supposed to make your heart become pure (membersihkan hati). Besides the above-mentioned goods he also offers an SMS service which one can subscribe to and than receive an SMS every morning containing a Koran verse, a Hadith or another Islamic saying. This service also seems to be very popular. His marketing strategies using positive Islamic registers seem fascinating and reflect the trend that Islam sells very well and once again reinforces the positive, friendly image of Islam. Of course, the women on pictures in his books or in advertisements or the staff in his supermarket all wear Muslim clothing.

Besides the above-mentioned products, other examples of products aimed at Muslims include Mecca Cola or Zam-Zam drinking water. There are also businesses aimed at Muslims, such as Islamic banks, where of course the female staff is veiled, offering financial solutions adapted to Islamic law. There are special travel agents for Muslims and special hair dressers for women wearing the veil where only women are allowed to enter. The trend of “Islamising” products becomes especially visible during Ramadan, when also Mc Donald’s, KFC and many other restaurants and bakeries suddenly have special Ramadan packages and use Islamic symbols and green colours for decoration in order to attract Muslims. In Mc Donald’s in Yogyakarta for example female staff has to veil during Ramadan, and so also in KFC[3] and other sale centres.

Not only private companies make money by “selling Islam”, but also the Indonesian state. Every year around 30´000 Indonesian Muslims depart for their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which is an enormous business for both the Indonesian state, as well as the specialised travel agents. One can find special packages that can easily cost 5´000 USD, but also the “normal” package is not at all cheap. The prestige a pilgrim gains after completing the Hajj seems however worth spending quite a lot of money (Hidayah 2004: 60). The Indonesian state airline Garuda has the monopoly on flying to Mecca. The pilgrimage is a very lucrative business for the Indonesian government.

Another example is the label “halal” to be found on almost any food packaging. This label is very important for many Muslims as it guarantees that Islamic food and slaughtering regulations are fulfilled. The only institution, however, that has the power to supply this label is the MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia), the committee of the most important and learned Muslims in Indonesia, which is very powerful. The label is however not for free – the consumer has to pay a kind of tax for every item bought with the label “halal” on it, costing 10.-Rp. (around 0,001 Euro) and that goes to the Indonesian government (Hidayah 2004: 77).

Ramadan Hedonism

When talking about consumption and Islam, I think it is worth mentioning the situation to be found in Yogyakarta during Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month, when, in the eyes of many, “Islamic hedonism” reaches its peak. Along many streets, also around the campus of UGM, a lot of small stalls are set up and drinks and light snacks are sold for the breaking of the fast in the evening. Many people go to spend time with friends and there are many events during the whole month to eat together after a long day of fasting. As Antariksa in his writing about “Fasting” 2002 notes, the major attraction of some of the “Ramadan strips”, such as for example Jalan Kaliurang passing by Gadjah Mada University, is not so much the refreshments sold to people breaking their fast for the day, but the opportunity to show off one’s style and wealth. Most of the vendors who set up a shop are not “career salespeople” but “sudden salespeople”, the children of the rich who stroll up and down past a line of luxury cars. The atmosphere is festive and funky with the sounds of the latest electronic or rock music reverberating from expensive car sound systems. The casual visitor might actually be surprised to see what happens on this city street in the name of restraining desire. The music pounds, young people flirt and everyone is dressed in their best clothes. The students hanging out there see no problem in being religious and having fun – they still fast. That is part of the game. Discipline and hedonism are no longer seen as incompatible, indeed the subjugation of the body through body maintenance routines, such as fasting, is presented within consumer culture.

On Idul Fitri, the big celebration at the end of Ramadan, everyone should wear a new dress. This seems to be an unwritten rule in Indonesia that everyone seems to follow. The stores, especially those selling Islamic clothes, are therefore very crowded in this month. Critical voices can be heard saying that the shopping malls seem to become the new mosques, that the mosques move to the malls (masjid pindah ke mall), as the mosques seem to get emptier the nearer Idul Fitri, the end of Ramadan, comes. Critics say this consumerist culture distracts people from the real meaning of Ramadan, the fasting and with it renunciation and the searching for God. This criticism is mostly diplomatic in form; however it can also find violent expressions. In the year 2001 for example, a “sweeping” was carried out in some places in Yogyakarta known as “Ramadan Hedonism” centres. Over several days, dozens of activists of the Gerakan Pemuda Ka’abah (Ka’abah Youth Movement or GPK), a militant Islamic group, accosted the amateur vendors, destroyed several cars, and forced women to veil. Apparently, however, the GPK’s attempts to enforce its own version of piety failed to impress and a week after the “sweepings” ended, people came back to their Ramadan hangout. In Jakarta these “sweepings” are much more violent and carried out by groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front or FPI). In the past years “places of sin” were especially targeted, such as centres for narcotics transactions, prostitution, gambling and drinking alcohol (Antariksa 2002). Also in Yogyakarta, quite many café, bar and disco owners decide to leave their business closed during Ramadan, as a result of the “sweeping”, for safety reasons.

The limits of Islamic pop culture – Opinions of activists of Islamic student organisations

At UGM there are four large active Islamic student organisations besides a few small ones. Their main difference is their understanding and interpretation of the Koran and Sunna, and this has consequences on how they dress, how they hold their meetings and how they interact.

Concerning the hybridisation process currently going on in Indonesia, they did not all approve of it in the same way. The most critical organisation towards this new form of Islamic pop culture was KAMMI. KAMMI is the acronym of Kesatuan Aksi Mahasiswa Muslim Indonesia (Unity of action of Muslim students in Indonesia). This Islamic student organisation was founded in 1998, before President Suharto’s resignation (Rahmanto 2005: 69).

KAMMI is the most formalistic of the larger Islamic student organisations. According to this organisation’s members, the Koran should only be interpreted on the basis of the Koran, not by anyone, but rather by experts in Islamic jurisprudence. This requires knowledge of the whole scripture together with two fundamental principles established by earlier commentators. After attempting to interpret the Koran in the light of the Koran, exegetes should next turn to the Sunna as preserved in the Hadiths – reports of what the Prophet said, did, and tacitly approved or disapproved of (Robinson 1999: 67). In the opinion of KAMMI activists, not everyone is therefore allowed to interpret the Koran in his or her own way by using one’s own reason. They follow the Koran in a textual way and, concerning their tolerance of forms of Islamic pop culture such as the trendy veil, they do not see this to be conforming to Islamic teaching. The female members of KAMMI however wear long veils, long skirts and socks and according to KAMMI, girls wearing short veils and jeans have not yet understood Islam correctly. They do however also see a positive side to the trendy veil: that is, at least more and more people are beginning to veil and are hopefully getting used to it and are becoming interested in learning more about Islam. In other words, many activists perceive it as a step in the right direction. Despite this, critical voices can also be heard, for example saying that girls wearing short veils with revealing clothes, hanging around with boys will harm the image of Islam.

Many activists are also critical towards Islamic TV series, especially the ones that combine Islamic content with Javanese ghost stories, where Islamic prayers mainly serve to dispel ghosts. Such syncretistic TV productions are very popular in Indonesia but have also been sharply criticised. More textual organisations and Islamic intellectuals especially put pressure on the mainly private TV stations to put an end to such productions. Finally a compromise was found: Now such syncretistic series can still be shown, but at the end of the broadcast an Islamic scholar gives a speech for about five minutes on the “real” values of Islam. This is just one example that shows how forms of Islamic pop culture are negotiated. KAMMI activists themselves also reject extensive consumption; they do not go to shopping malls and in general they avoid products from the west, such as food from Mc Donald’s, western music or films. They do however have Nokia mobile phones and would not reject a scholarship to study in Europe.

They do not have problems with people who sell Islamic symbols commercially such as Aa Gym (Adullah Gymnastiar), who even sells motorbikes in the name of Islam. It is fine to earn money with Islamic products or also to use Islam as a marketing strategy, as long as the money that is earned is well invested and not used to display one’s wealth.

Generally they see this Islamic pop culture, and they acknowledged that there is such a phenomenon, as both good and bad. On the one hand Islam is promoted, but sometimes the symbols are “empty”, and because of this people have to learn more and be able to continue with the Islamic way of life. They say that a lot still has to be done and the members of the organisation will thus endeavour to led people to the “right way” and to fill the “empty” symbols with meaning.

The other three Islamic student organisations are not as textual as KAMMI in their interpretations of the Koran. The female activists of IMM for example wear trendy veils and jeans. IMM stands for Ikatan Mahasiswa Muhammadiyah (Student Association of Muhammadiyah[4]). In the structure as it is today, IMM was founded in 1964, but existed before as a sub-organisation of Muhammadiyah (Rahmanto 2005: 71). Although IMM is an autonomous organisation of Muhammadiyah, the members of IMM as the cadre of Muhammadiyah are not uninfluenced by the discourses held by the members of Muhammadiyah concerning different matters. (“Sebagai kader Muhammadiyah, anggota IMM tidak terlepas dari wacana yang muncul di kalangan iternal Muhammadiyah dalam berbagai masalah”).

The activists of IMM I met see in forms of Islamic pop culture a chance to promote Islam, wherein one should not try to evade from global influences. Veiling is seen as a religious obligation, the trendy veil, however, is fine and one should not exaggerate by wearing veils that are too long. Furthermore, the aurat, meaning the body except the hands and the face, should be covered and the veil should not be used to deliberately attract men. They explained that Islamic pop culture becomes problematic at the point in which it becomes fully detached from Islamic values and beliefs. The veil for example should not just become a fashion accessory and should link up to one’s actions, wherein one has to live according to Islamic values, be a good person, help others and believe in Allah. This is the most important issue and as long as one keeps these values in mind, one can combine a veil with jeans and listen to nasyid music or to anything else one likes. Generally these new forms have helped to make the image of Islam in general become friendly and trendy, so more people are attracted and hopefully more people want to learn more about Islam, IMM activists tell me.

Agus, one of the leaders of HMI Dipo from Gadjah Mada University I met, thinks that Islam has to be gaul, meaning trendy and sociable. The Islamic student organisation Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam (Association of Islamic Students) was founded in 1947, just two years after Indonesian independence. It is the oldest Islamic student organisation in Indonesia (Rahmanto 2005: 52) and also the most heterogeneous one. According to HMI thought, the trendy (veil as one of the most conspicuous symbols of Islamic pop culture) seems to be a good way of making Islam become popular, and there is nothing wrong with this model of veil. Wearing a veil is a personal affair anyway and not a religious obligation. They state that one has to read and interpret the Koran in a contextual way, meaning that what is written in the Koran should be adapted to the contemporary situation and society. Agus points out that when the Prophet Muhammad lived, living conditions were different, and if he had lived in contemporary Indonesia a lot might have been different. He sees the veil, as well as other practices, as a pre-Islamic phenomenon and not as an “invention” of Islam. That is, the veil is one expression of hybridisation of the local culture with the new religion, wherein a local tradition was integrated into the new religion. He does therefore not perceive the practice of veiling as a religious obligation that a woman has to follow, but more as an Islamic symbol to state one’s identity. From the very beginning Islam was a hybrid religion, as Muhammad did not live in a cultural vacuum. The contemporary forms of Islamic pop culture are therefore just the normal order of things and should be accepted and used to make Islam develop, to become and stay popular. Agus warns, however, against using Islamic symbols too extensively, as they can also serve to exclude others, as is the case for example when women wear long veils or cadars. In his eyes, exclusivity starts when social interaction with other people becomes limited (“kalau pergaulannya menjadi terbatas”). The spirituality has to be a social one, not one specific to a certain group (“Islam harus terbuka spiritualitas, spiritualitas sosial, bukan spiritualitas kelompok atau komunitas tertentu”). Everyone should be able to read and interpret the Koran as long as one is convinced that this interpretation is right and in accordance with the ideals of Islam[5] (“Interpretasi Al-Quran itu, bisa dilakukan secara bebas siapapun orangnya selama dia yakin bahwa interpretasi terhadap Ialam benar menurut dia, sesuai dengan cita-cita Islam”).

The activists of PMII Pergerakan Mahasiswa Islam Indonesia (Movement of Indonesian Islamic students) also see the phenomenon of Islamic pop culture mainly as a chance for Islam in general in Indonesia. PMII was born from the big Islamic organisation Nahdatul Ulama or NU that was founded in 1926. It took this organisation quite some time before it became autonomous in 1965 (Rahmanto 2005: 63). Hybridisation as a process of cultural transactions and assimilation with the local culture has always been one of the aims of NU as well as PMII. Contrary to Muhammadiyah, NU favoured syncretistic forms of Islam with the local Javanese culture and never understood the Koran in a very textual manner. Also, the activists of PMII believe, just as many members of HMI do, that already during the time of Muhammad Islam was influenced by the local culture of that period and place. Thus, today Islam should be adapted to contemporary circumstances. Concerning clothes, Imung, who holds quite a high position in PMII, tells me there are certain occasions when it may be suitable to veil, for example for demonstrating or for other formal occasions, but others where it would be disturbing, such as when the members of PMII go to spend a day on the beach. He says that this would be too hot for the body and therefore not something that is good. In these kinds of circumstances it is acceptable to wear simply a shirt and jeans, there is nothing wrong if one does not wear a veil, however the important thing is to guard the heart (“Cukuplah memakai kaos, celana jins, jilbab ndak ditutup kan enggak salah, yang penting hati tetap kita jaga”).

In regard to new Islamic commercial products such as TV series, books or cosmetics, PMII activists do not have any concerns. What is important however is that one lives in an Islamic way, meaning that one is a good person, helpful and always keeps the essential Islamic values in mind, otherwise one should rather not use Islamic symbols, such as the veil, because this would sully the image of Islam (“mengotori Islam”). What PMII wants is an “Islamisation” of Indonesia that is in accordance with the local traditions, and not “Arabisation” (“Kembali ke yang diinginkan PMII, itu Islamisasi yang sesuai dengan tradisi-tradisi di Indonesia, bukan Arabisasi”). Global influences from the Middle East should thus be adapted to the local tradition as well, just as global influences from the west should.


This article presents a picture of Indonesian pop culture which I believe transmits both a sense of complexity and of the detailed interrelations among its forms. As it has been shown, each element in the kaleidoscope has its own distinctive characteristics, styles and manners.

In the different ways Islam is contemporarily expressed and lived, a hybridisation process is reflected that shows the challenges Indonesian Muslims face in integrating, rejecting or adapting global influences from the western world as well as from the Islamic Middle Eastern countries. The example of the trendy veil shows how these global influences are integrated in locality and how locality is assimilated with global trends. Young people in particular are creative in constructing their own identity as each variant of veiling embodies a different attitude towards Islam. What brings them together is a common social context in which no single element can be understood without reference to the others. The complexity of borrowing, avoidance, suppression and irony takes us beyond this purely formal and structuralist insight. Within a certain frame, individuals find creative ways and play an active role in constantly constructing and reconstructing meanings of symbols, for example of the veil. My aim has thus been to show how political and social tensions affect religious expressions, how they shape and mutate it, without neglecting the especially active role the youth plays in this very dynamic process.

This study on the varieties of expression Islam finds in Javanese society stands in a long tradition of a number of excellent studies such as Beatty (1999), Brenner (1996), Geertz (1960, 1984), Gibson (2000), Hanneman and Schulte Nordholt (2004), Hefner (1987, 1993, 1999, 2002), Howell (2001), Hudson (1986), Koentjaraningrat (1980), Muzakki (2005), Van Dijk (1997), Woodward (1989) and many others. Many of these works, however, have one weakness in common: they tend, to a greater or smaller extent, to present local Javanese tradition as well as Islam as static and homogenous. Usually if change and transformation processes are described, this is done under consideration of external influences or structural changes, for example in politics, that then have an influence on the varieties of expressions Islam finds. The important role that the active and creative individual plays within these structural constraints is very often neglected, if not omitted. It was my aim to integrate this aspect of individual agency without neglecting structural constraints in the analysis. I chose to focus on students as I perceive them to be a particularly active social group and a driving force in the process of social change. In many studies, for example in Geertz’s (1960) famous book of “The Religion of Java”, one may furthermore gain the impression that there exist three religious variants and that the practitioners inhabit separate worlds, with each being consistent in his or her separate identity (see also Beatty 1999). My interest lies in the compromise and ambivalence which cannot be captured by a categorical opposition. I start with the idea that many students take elements from different traditions and also use global influences to constantly construct their identity – they constantly compromise, switch and make up daily life in mixed communities, where religious orientation is just one among many other parameters that define one’s position in a fast changing world. It seems important to me to consider how religious orientations influence other spheres of social life, for example how it affects attitudes towards consumption. I agree with Beatty in the point that a strictly typological approach, which many authors on Javanese religiosity have taken, cannot register this kind of complexity (1999: 115-116).

With this article I hope to have made a small contribution to the large and very diverse field of studies in transformation processes and religious diversity in Javanese society. By taking Islamic symbols as a concrete example of showing how global influences are assimilated in locality and how students use religious symbols to construct their identities, I also want to react to simplistic and often ethnocentric explanations that associate for example women’s veiling almost exclusively with seclusion and patriarchal suppression and control. I hope to have been able to show that Islamic symbols are complex and that the meaning attributed to them is not endemic but rather produced through cultural discourse and vast networks of social relationship. Meanings of Islamic symbols are thus often fluid and change depending on the context and may find many diverse expressions in everyday life practice.


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[1] Non-Muslims are excluded from the Islamic life style. The new forms of Islamic pop culture have also discriminating aspects. To play and be creative with Islamic symbols is reserved for Muslims. It is not common for Christian or Hindu students to veil, to read Islamic magazines or to attend nasyid concerts. Not only are non-Muslims excluded from this Islamic lifestyle, but also they do not gain advantages from the good image that especially veiled girls benefit from. This is one point where the idea of Islamic pop culture, where everything seems possible, reaches its limit in everyday life.

[2] By Islamic press I understand the press which serves the needs of the Islamic community, in material form, political needs as well as in form of values. (Swastika 2003:12).

[3] In 2005 however, in KFC the female employees were not allowed to wear the veil in other months. The female staff in Mc Donald’s was free to choose during the rest of the year.

[4] Muhammadiyah was founded in 1912 in Yogyakarta as an organisation dedicated to Islamic modernism. As Gibson notes: “The sort of reformed Islam advocated by this movement stressed individual reason, learning from printed texts, the absolute authority of scripture, and a rejection of all “ innovations” in ritual. It was particularly hostile to organized Sufi orders and even traditional schools of law, in both of which a pupil is expected to accept the authority of a master” (Gibson 2000: 52).

[5] Also Ernest Gellner, among many others, shares the perception of Islam as an open source that can be read and understood in different ways. He writes in the foreword to the book “Islam, globalisation and postmodernity”: “Christianity has its Bible belt: Islam is a Qur’an belt. So Islam became a kind of permanent or cyclical reformation” (Gellner 1994, xii).

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