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Muslim Pop Culture on the Rise in Indonesia

Muslim Pop Culture on the Rise in Indonesia

New political freedoms in world's largest Muslim democracy foster increased piety following decades under Suharto dictatorship

After decades under a dictatorship, Indonesia has evolved in the past decade into a democracy. With increased political rights has come an increased ability to study and express religious faith in a country with the world's largest Muslim population. As a result, the country's population is growing increasingly pious, which has led to a burst of Muslim pop culture.

Browsers and vendors at Jakarta's recent Islamic Book Fair took time from browsing to heed the call to prayer. Unlike on the city's streets, most women wore headscarves, and some covered themselves will full-length abayas, with only slits for their eyes - a rare show of religious modesty in Indonesia.

The Islamic Book Fair is the most important event in Indonesia for publishers like Afrizal Sinaro, chairman of the Jakarta publisher's association. With 280 booths this year and an estimated half a million visitors, the fair has eclipsed a more secular, annual book fair.

Sinaro says the success of Islamic books started 12 years ago, during the economic crisis that led to the fall of the former Suharto government. During those troubled times, he says, people found solace in religion, and since then Islamic book sales have never stopped rising. Today, 40 percent of the members of his association publish exclusively Muslim books, and these types of publications sell even better than school books.

One booth offers a 50 percent discount for 10 minutes on all its products. A throng of girls wearing white veils battles to get the good deals while they last. They came by bus from Jakarta's suburbs as part of a school outing. Sixteen-year-old Reha Fahrani grabs a thin book called "How to Look Cool With a Veil."

She says these days, there is so much on offer concerning Islam - on TV, by preachers, in the media - that it is difficult to know what to believe. So the book fair is a great place for her to better her religious practice and make up her mind about everything being offered.

And that is a rainbow of Islamic-themed literature. There are romance books, cook books, joke books, children's books, sex books; books on fasting, charity, praying, clothing; an array of Koran - in Arabic, or in different Indonesian translations - and a small selection of political books.

Publisher Sinaro says the best selling items are practical books on how to live life as a devout Muslim. He says the average reader is fairly new to the religion and needs to acquire the basics before moving on to more intellectual purposes.

Islam has been the dominant religion in Indonesia for centuries, but during the three decades of Mr. Suharto's rule the government tried to contain Islamic movements.

Since then, strong censorship and media bans have lifted, allowing information to spread around the archipelago. Islamic values and expressions of faith no longer are confined to the mosque or religious events, but can be seen at the movies or heard on the radio.

The theme of the movie "Ayat Ayat Cinta," or, "Verses of Love," which became a cultural phenomenon in the 2000s, has become a hit song.

Its hero, Fahri, a pious Indonesian student at the prestigious Al Azhar University in Egypt, has become the image of the ideal husband for millions of Indonesian women: a devout Muslim, respectful and good hearted.

In the past 10 years, Muslim pop culture has exploded. Muslim ringtones for cell phones are heard everywhere, daytime soap operas often pit worthy and faithful heroes against depraved and manipulating foes, some Muslim preachers have reached the status of celebrities, and the first Islamic fashion show took place in Jakarta four years ago.

In the 1960's, millions of people, especially on the main island of Java, practiced a form of Islam mixed with animism and Hinduism. Azyumardi Azra, a prominent Muslim intellectual, says times have sharply changed since then.

"That's not the case now. Because there's a growing number of Muslims who are becoming more Islamic; more and more Indonesian Muslims going to pilgrimage, more and more Indonesian women wearing the hijab. But that doesn't mean that Indonesian Islam is more political now," Azra said.

In fact, in Indonesia, growing piety has largely remained within the private sphere. Most attempts at imposing greater religious standards in public institutions have so far failed, and only 22 percent of the population supports transforming their secular government, which guarantees freedom of religion, to one ruled by Sharia law. That is roughly the same proportion that existed at Indonesia's independence, 60 years ago.