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Reviewed by:
  • Islam and Popular Culture in Indonesia and Malaysia ed. by Andrew N. Weintraub
  • Nancy J. Smith-Hefner (bio)
Andrew N. Weintraub, ed. Islam and Popular Culture in Indonesia and Malaysia. London and New York, NY: Routledge Publishing, 2011. 272pp.

This volume on Islam and popular culture in the Malay world contains chapters by prominent senior as well as up-and-coming scholars of Southeast Asia. The essays examine contemporary discourses and public debates surrounding films, tabloids, musical genres, fashion, television programming, and the Internet to explore the varied ways that popular culture and Islam have become “mutually constitutive as sites for defining Muslim lives” in Indonesia and Malaysia (p. 1). The larger context is that of a resurgent Islam, dating from the late 1970s in Malaysia, and in Indonesia, intensifying with the fall of the dictatorial president Suharto in May of 1998, the subsequent decentralization of political authority, and the liberalization of the media.

A significant number of the collection’s authors (Ishadi S. K., Raju, Che Dan, Omar, Khoo, and Heryanto) assess the impact of a resurgent Islam on films and television programming. In Malaysia, Islamic-themed television has become commonplace; by comparison, in Indonesia, media liberalization and the doubling of the number of commercial television networks since the end of the New Order has not resulted in a great expansion of Islamic shows. Ishadi S. K. (“Negotiating Mass Media Interests and Muslim Audiences in Indonesia”) argues that, aside from programs shown during the holy month of Ramadan, religious programs have a limited presence on Indonesian television because they are unable to draw adequate audiences. He presents data that indicate that in 2006 religious content in television programming increased 285 percent during the month of Ramadan when compared to the previous month, but dropped precipitously in the months following, as viewers lost interest in shows with religious themes. Over the years 2006 to 2008, the amount of religious programming during the holy month actually decreased from 50 hours per week to 42 hours per week, due in part to the protests of religious leaders that many “religious” programs included themes of mysticism that were contrary to Islam. Conservative and Islamist Muslims continue to voice the desire for more serious and consistent Islamic shows; however, Ishadi emphasizes the “historically tolerant and moderate characteristics of Indonesian Islam” and argues that the majority of Indonesians feel content with the current concentration of religious programming during the month of Ramadan, viewing it as adding to the festive atmosphere in households during the Muslim fast.

R. Anderson Sutton makes a similar argument in his analysis of music genres identified as Muslim (“Music, Islam, and the Commercial Media in Contemporary Indonesia”); he, too, finds that while the market is expanding, the popularity of religious musical genres, styles, and groups is, at least in Indonesia, circumscribed. He notes that Indonesian consumers are eager for Islamic entertainment during the month of Ramadan, and many mainstream music groups respond by producing special albums for the Ramadan market. However, the market seems to have a low saturation point with regard to music that “often sounds similar from one song to the next, both in the conservative musical style and in the moralizing messages” (p. 95). Making a point also introduced in fascinating chapters by Rhoma Irama and Bart Barendregt, Sutton recognizes the morally ambiguous position of music within Islam and the continuing debates over the sensuality and overtly commercial aspects of popular [End Page 209] Muslim music genres. The authors argue that despite these obvious tensions, Muslim music has a firm presence in the Indonesian and Malay marketplace, and Muslim genres like nasyid (Islamic popular music sung a cappella) have become increasingly identified as the “soundtrack of the emerging Islamic middle class” (p. 242).

The push and pull of market and religious sensibilities is also present in discussions of Islamic themes in Malaysian and Indonesian films. Gaik Cheng Khoo considers representations of the headscarf (Malay: tudung) and its multiple meanings in a Malaysian short-film competition for independent filmmakers on the subject. The tudung is widely viewed as connoting not just Islamic piety but an ethnic Malay identity; however, these filmmakers approach the phenomenon from the margins...


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pp. 209-212
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