Sincerity and Scandal

The Cultural Politics of “Fake Piety" in Indonesia

by James B. Hoesterey

Nov 08, 2017

James B. Hoesterey (Emory University)

President Obama’s first official visit to Indonesia in 2010 was broadcast live on national television. Political choreographers were eager to capitalize on the homecoming of Indonesia’s adopted prodigal son. To rapturous applause, President Obama opened his first official speech in Indonesian: pulang kampung nih (“I’m back home”). Obama was eager to praise Indonesia as proof that Islam and democracy can comfortably coexist. Public diplomacy, though, seldom goes as planned. During the official welcoming line at the state palace, a media bombshell exploded over what might otherwise have been a routine handshake between Michelle Obama and a cabinet member, Tifatul Sembiring. During his tenure as chair of the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), Sembiring frequently cited Islamic ethics for his refusal to shake hands with Indonesian women. However, when the Obamas arrived at the state palace, Sembiring giddily greeted Michelle Obama with a broad smile and double-clasped handshake.

Prominent journalist Uni Lubis immediately chided Sembiring via Twitter: “How is it that [Sembiring] can shake Michelle Obama’s hand, but he doesn’t want to shake the hands of [Indonesian] women?” With over a million Twitter followers, Sembiring tweeted his defense, blaming the “inadvertent” contact on Michelle Obama: “I was holding back my two hands, but then Michelle placed her hands way in front and [my hand] was inadvertently touched. [Then] @unilubis got offended ☺.” Lubis retweeted that the video footage suggested otherwise. The clip soon appeared on YouTube and went viral on social media. Within hours, activists, politicians, and pop stars stirred up a public campaign to challenge Sembiring’s claims to sincerity, authenticity, and personal piety. The diplomatic debacle was even satirized on The Colbert Report. The public backlash against Sembiring was less about alternative gendered readings of the Qur’an than the desire to publicly shame Sembiring for his “holier than thou” hypocrisy (Hoesterey 2016).

Authenticity also became controversial during the digital drama of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential campaign – Who was the real patriot? Who was the real Muslim? The election pitted populist Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) against Prabowo Subianto, the former special forces commander suspected of human rights violations during the latter years of Suharto’s authoritarian regime (1965-1998). Prabowo reportedly had dozens of staffers working on print and social media, and they were often accused of waging a malicious campaign to spread lies about Jokowi. Prabowo’s campaign tabloid, Obor Rakyat (Torch of the People), printed stories, cartoons, and satirical images suggesting Jokowi was a Chinese-Indonesian, communist sympathizer, and fake Muslim.

Jokowi’s campaign platform was not explicitly Islamic, and he lacked the support of the vast majority of Islamist-leaning political parties. After a long, bitter, hard-fought, and still close campaign, Jokowi announced that during the final days of the campaign vote count, he and his wife would go on the umroh pilgrimage to Mecca. A promotional image from the pilgrimage trail turned into a digital fiasco when a photo of Jokowi wearing the required ihram garb was digitally altered, with the ihram now draped over the wrong shoulder. Indeed, public displays of piety also invite suspicion about one’s motives and challenges to one’s sincerity (Jones 2010). The Islamist media website nahimunkar.com posted the altered photo with the caption: “Apparently, Jokowi should have joined a pilgrimage training course with elementary school kids so he doesn’t make that mistake.” The image on the right, by a liberal-leaning news site, claims to expose the hoax with their own original (asli) photo. In this era of digital puppeteers (dalang), proof is in the eye of the beholder.

Unlike Habermas’ coffee shop ideal of rational debate, Indonesia’s mediated public sphere is one of vociferous dialogue and debate, ridicule and satire. And, Indonesians are certainly not blind to the political motivations of campaign season propaganda. Obor Rakyat’s headlines about Jokowi’s inauthenticity are themselves often critiqued as fake and become fodder for satire. In the image below, images in Obor Rakyat and TV One (owned by Prabowo’s ally Aburizal Bakrie) are cleverly edited to proclaim that Brazil beat Germany in the 2014 World Cup Finals (when, in fact, Brazil lost).

TV One even has Brazil winning 7-1.

Jokowi’s campaign, fed up with fake news, designed their own political tabloid and recruited Islamic leaders to provide praise for Jokowi, in order to counter Obor Rakyat’s slanderous accounts. Jokowi’s tabloid title combines Indonesian and Arabic to invoke the oft-cited Qur’anic proclamation of Islam as rahmatan lil al-amin, or a “blessing for humankind and the universe.”

Whether images promote one’s own piety or reveal one’s hypocrisy, issues of sincerity and authenticity are always at stake. As Karen Strassler has observed, “Political communications thus travel from medium to medium in a complex traffic, taking on, at each remediation, distinctive forms of address, authority, and authorship. Unruly processes of reception and reinvention… have thus become an integral feature of contemporary Indonesian political communication.” (2009, 95). Scholars of Indonesia offer an excellent and expanding body of scholarship (Bubandt 2014; Jones 2010; Lindsey 2001; Siegel 1998) that explores similar crises of authenticity through the neologism aspal (loosely translated as “the authentic fake”), derived from combining asli (genuine/original) and palsu (fake). This specter of inauthenticity, the aspal, loomed especially large during the New Order, when one could obtain authentic fake passport documents, legal logging stamps, counterfeit money, or Gucci handbags. In the digital moral landscape of popular Islam, it is often the preachers and politicians who are cast as charlatans and hypocrites.

The platform of social media, which so readily allows the fake to be presented as real (and the real as fake) has become the preferred and perfect site to showcase the aspal. In the minds of acolytes and critics alike, social media have amplified the perceived importance of authenticity and sincerity. Mediated forms of public protest--whether against PKS or Prabowo--relish in revealing sin and scandal among the self-proclaimed righteous, to whom Indonesians refer with the pejorative term sok suci, “those who think they are so pious.” At stake is the insincerity of publicly performed piety. The politics of aspal has given rise to a new generation of digital dalang (puppeteers) who challenge proclamations of personal piety, relish in religious scandals, and revel in insincere sincerity.

References Cited

Bubandt, Nils
2014 Democracy, Corruption and the Politics of Spirits in Indonesia. New York:
Routledge.

Hoesterey, James Bourk
2016 Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-help Guru.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Jones, Carla
2010 Materializing Piety: Gendered Anxieties about Faithful Consumption in
Contemporary Urban Indonesia. American Ethnologist 37 (4): 617-637

Lindsey, Timothy
2001 Abdurrahman, the Supreme Court, and Corruption: Viruses,
Transplants, and the Body Politic in Indonesia. In Indonesia: The Uncertain Transition,
edited by Arief Budiman and Damien Kingsbury, 43-67. Hindmarsh, S. Australia:
Crawford House.

Siegel, James T.
1998 A New Criminal Type in Jakarta: Counter-Revolution Today. Durham: Duke University Press.

Strassler, Karen
2009 The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis, and Remediation in Contemporary Indonesia. Cultural Anthropology 24(1):68-103.


Cite as: Hoesterey, James B. 2017 "Sincerity and Scandal: The Cultural Politics of “Fake Piety" in Indonesia" In "Piety, Celebrity, Sociality: A Forum on Islam and Social Media in Southeast Asia," Martin Slama and Carla Jones, eds., American Ethnologist website, November 8. http://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/piety-celebrity-sociality/sincerity-and-scandal