THE ASIAN VOICE

Questioning the Islamic labelling of books and films: The Jakarta Post columnist

Please come to Indonesian bookstores. 

You will find many volumes with an 'Islamic Book' label filling up the bestseller corner. 

From fiction to non-fiction, from novel to 'how to' books, all are labeled 'Islamic.' 

Those are the favourite books for most people in Indonesia, the country with the world’s biggest Muslim population.

After the fall of Suharto’s regime in 1998, novels or books branded as Islamic have been dominating sales in Indonesia’s book industry. Why?

First of all, it is because of the rise of the Islamic spirit within Indonesian society after Muslims were repressed for 32 years by Suharto’s regime. 

The pendulum has tilted toward more fundamentalism. The climate of freedom has been followed by the freedom of people to use religious symbols and do religious activities. 

The number of women wearing jilbab, for instance, sharply increased after 1998. 

Before 1998, in my high school, a public school in small town in East Java, maybe only 10 women wore jilbab. Now, in the same school, only non-Muslim girls are not wearing jilbab.

I am not saying that many people wearing jilbab is bad. 

On the contrary, it’s an encouraging sign, but is it good for the society as a whole? I don’t know. 

The thing is many Muslim girls wear jilbab for conformity's sake. They don’t want to be different and don’t want to be seen as less devoted Muslim girls. 

Such a development also singles out minority groups who, I am afraid, will be forced to leave public school and join their group in private schools, creating even further segregation within society.

The awareness and freedom to use and to be attached to any kind of religious symbol were followed by the birth of cultural products or commodities trying to capture the latest trend and phenomena in our society. 

They soon become part of the market system, made into commodities and monetised. Jilbab and other Muslim apparel are now a huge business with millions of women becoming consumers and spending billions to show they are devoted Muslims.

In 2004, a novel called Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Love Verses) was published and has sold millions of copies, not only in Indonesia but also in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. 

This novel is undoubtedly one of the most phenomenal seen in Indonesia from the number sold. 

The success of Ayat-Ayat Cinta was soon followed by the birth of hundreds of novels with the same type of story: a love story set abroad in Europe, the United States, or Egypt, using religious symbols as a gimmick. 

The women wear jilbab, the men are devoted Muslims who do sholat and say "Assalamulaikum" every time they meet, etc. and etc. Then these novels got the Islamic label.

Why did I say it’s only a gimmick? 

Because Islamic symbols are used to justify the branding of something to make it appear noble: A novel promotes Islamic teachings to attract Muslim readers. 

However, I believe that Islamic values are not as shallow as the Islamic symbols that have been exploited in the novels. 

The contents themselves are merely love stories and they even often create misunderstandings about the true values of Islam. 

In Ayat-Ayat Cinta, for instance, we can conclude that the novel strongly promotes polygamy through a protagonist who practices polygamy and who believes that women should accept it.

Moreover, in many novels labeled Islamic, readers have been told stories about dreams: about becoming a rich, successful man living abroad who doesn't care about the real problems in our world. 

Are those Islamic values? Are the books Islamic enough to be called Islamic novels?

These successful recipes enticed the industry to duplicate them to maximise gains. 

Thus, we have seen so many similar novels afterwards. 

With millions of Muslim consumers out there, these novels also reap the same success.

The same phenomena happens in movies and on television programs. 

So many “Islamic films” have been produced and have sold well in cinemas. So do the opera soaps on television. 

They are considered to be Islamic films and Islamic sinetron just because the women wear jilbab and the most common typical story is about a protagonist who wears jilbab and an antagonist who doesn’t. 

Don’t ask about the story: There is nothing else but a love story and the trivial problems faced by wealthy people. 

The latest trend is about someone taking a journey, travel stories about jilbabers going abroad to Korea, Europe, and the US.

From novels to films, everything that has used Islamic symbols has sold well. 

People love these kinds of stories just because basically they are romances, love stories, stories that give people illusions and dreams. 

When the stories appear to use religious symbols and are labeled as Islamic books and Islamic films, common Muslims will think they should read and watch them because it would be a good deed, part of their religious activities.

Novels and films are just two examples of how Islamic symbols have been made into commodities by the market and capitalist system so that some people can get richer. 

They show how religion works together with the market to give some people profits at the expense of the majority.

The writer is the author of five novels who has also done research for her thesis, Genealogy of Indonesian Novels: Capitalism, Islam, and Critical Literature. This piece was from her talk at the Singapore Writers Festival 2016 in November 2016.