Asian Insider

Popular but provocative: Social media preachers under the spotlight

Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad Batubara has been in the headlines for being denied entry into Singapore over his extremist teachings.

Asian Insider looks at the rise of social media preachers like him and conservative Instagram celebrities, and why some are concerned about the trends.   

Rise of social media preachers

Sitting before a Muslim congregation, controversial Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad Batubara made disparaging remarks about the Christian crucifix.

"There's an infidel djinn (spirit) in the crucifix," he said during a sermon at a mosque in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, courting laughter. The footage went viral on social media in August 2019, sparking massive public outcry.

Both Christians and Muslims said the 45-year-old preacher, popularly known as Ustaz Abdul Somad or by his initials UAS, had defamed a religious symbol, stoked anti-Christian sentiments and threatened Indonesia's national unity.

Renowned Islamic scholar Quraish Shihab said the preacher's remarks were excessive and advised him to apologise. In defence, Mr Somad insisted his teachings were confined to only Muslims and made in a private space.

The rise of religious extremism in the world's most populous Muslim country, coupled with a strong appetite for digital media, has led to the ascent of new Islamic authority figures and catapulted preachers like Mr Somad to fame.


Marrying without dating made couple in Indonesia social media celebs

Five years ago, Indonesian street busker Natta Reza chanced upon the Instagram account of a woman who had liked one of his posts.

Her account depicted an avatar instead of a profile photo and its description read: "Only an ordinary girl who aspires to marry young" - which Mr Natta thought was noble.

Curious, he sent her a private message but she did not reply. He messaged her again three hours later, asking her to marry him.

Ms Wardah Maulina, then a 21- year-old undergraduate, simply replied with a brief description of herself and requested time to discuss his proposal with her family.

Three days later, the couple met and she accepted his proposal, and within weeks, she became his bride. They now have a six-month-old daughter.


Extreme preachers could trigger tensions, harm if left unchecked

It has been two weeks since controversial Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad Batubara was denied entry into Singapore for his segregationist and extremist teachings.

The issue has blown up in the media, partly owing to his legion of Internet fans - there are 6.5 million on Instagram, 2.72 million on YouTube and 709,000 on Facebook.

Then his supporters staged protests demanding an apology in Jakarta and in Medan, North Sumatra, and spammed the social media accounts of President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other Singapore leaders.

Voices poured in, not only from the public, but also from political leaders, Islamic scholars, and terror experts in the region.

While some accused Singapore of Islamophobia, most were respectful of its stance to prevent radical views from entering its shores.

As far as the Indonesian government is concerned, any sovereign country, be it Singapore or Indonesia, reserves the right to deny anyone entry.


What 'mesmerising' foreign preachers say may affect harmony in Singapore

Their speeches are fiery compared with their Singapore counterparts and sprinkled with stories that make viewers laugh, keeping them hooked for hours. Such social media preachers from Indonesia have gained a following in homes elsewhere in the region, including the Republic, in recent years.

Their audience, especially the older generation, might find them "mesmerising", said Mr Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah Sudiman, an associate research fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

"The delivery is usually full of passion, coupled with humour or zikir that is soothing to the soul," he added, referring to religious chants. "The language and lingo are also pleasant to the ears."

However, observers like Mr Saiful, who studied Islamic theology at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, noted that such preachers can have adverse implications for a multiracial, multi-religious society like Singapore, and threaten harmony.


Online hate speech use by preacher denied entry could cause divisions in Singapore: Expert

The use of online hate speech by Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad Batubara who was barred from entering Singapore could cause serious polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims here, an observer said on Friday (May 27).

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said that based on his observations, the authorities look at the current and past comments from preachers like Somad in deciding whether or not to bar their entry.

The rise of such radical social media preachers is a topic that Prof Kumar touches on in his new book Extremist Islam: Recognition and Response in Southeast Asia, launched on Friday.


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