Carla Jones (University of Colorado Boulder) and Martin Slama (Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences)

Popular uses of smartphones at an Islamic college in Indonesia. (Photograph by Martin Slama)

How can anthropological analyses of religion illuminate rhetoric about the utopic and dystopic potential of social media? While religion and social media may seem like separate realms of social life, ethnographic analysis highlights their shared features and connections. Simultaneously promising or threatening disruptive social change through forms of discipleship, mobilization or celebrity, proponents and detractors alike traffic in the potential for social media and religion to overturn established hierarchies and deliver a more just future. Key events, such as the Arab Spring in 2010 and hashtag activism in the US following the death of Michael Brown in 2014, have become emblematic of the power of social media to organize resistant political movements. Yet when social media techniques are linked to pious religious identities, especially if the religion is Islam, these parallel features are often reframed as threatening. Much of the Orientalist rhetoric about of the use of social media by pious Muslims, such as the sensational provocations used by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), rely on similar assumptions about the dangerously enchanting mix of religion and social media. Such depictions assert a global emergency about Islamic social media as inherently contradictory, that pious Muslims employ a modern technology to serve a non-modern agenda.

This collection brings together original, concise ethnographies of Islamic social media uses from Indonesia and Malaysia to consider how Muslims themselves envision the effects of social media. As the world’s largest Muslim majority country, and the country with one of the largest number of Facebook users world-wide, Indonesia in particular makes for a compelling site in which to situate these questions. In the last year alone, Indonesia has seen two national political scandals arise on the basis of religious accusations circulated via social media. The former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok), was voted out of office in March 2017, and then arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for blasphemy in large part because of video footage of a 2016 campaign moment that circulated via social media. In May 2017, Rizieq Shihab, leader of the controversial Islamic organization Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam) was charged on pornography accusations because of conversations and images exchanged with a woman who is not his wife, ostensibly captured from his WhatsApp account.

While these examples challenge the alarmist rhetoric depicting Islamic social media as a medium for circulating invocations to violence, they also ask for ethnographic analysis. The contributors to this collection ask how, while social media are intimate and ubiquitous in contemporary Southeast Asia, they are simultaneously sites of concern for their own users and creators. Debates about social media in Southeast Asia therefore index broader debates about the turn to public piety, Islamic reform movements, and the role of religion in other forms of social change. We find that tweets, Facebook groups, Instagram posts, YouTube sermons, and WhatsApp groups have an intertextual capacity that further amplify these connections and anxieties. Moreover, rather than take either theological orthodoxy or social media as forms of authority that can only be received and obeyed, this collection points to circulation, dialogue, and the possibility that public forms of communication can enter into personal life and circle back out to influence public culture.

Several themes emerge among these essays. Taken together, they illustrate the ways in which Southeast Asian Muslims find both religious piety and social media dialogically inform their sense of the world and their place in it. These effects are both personal and public, influencing personal life choices such as when to marry, and collective, such as institutional decisions about theology or policy. First, we find that Islamic social media have become sites for sorting out everyday dilemmas through religious community. Users, often younger people who have grown up in an internet era, demonstrate a strong desire to discuss personal topics and find online communities an appealing venue in which to do that. Second, Islamic social media have become alternative arenas for political expression, in part because they facilitate a lively, intense, often impolite discourse that is much harder to express face-to-face in Indonesian social life with its emphasis on hierarchy and propriety. While these expressions build on the ability to attract and maintain an audience, they also suggest that even though political discourse on social media globally seems to create opportunities for satire and humor, there is a bigger difference between online and offline communication in Indonesia than elsewhere. Additionally, social media have allowed for religious figures to ascend institutional hierarchies more rapidly or to circumvent them by finding new paths to Islamic authority. Finally, we find that social media have become venues for worries about truth itself. Accusations of pride and excess have become a common feature of the moral panics about social media in Southeast Asia, while defenses against accusations of self-promotion also emerge and circulate on social media. These critiques are frequently framed in religious rhetoric, adding to their moral tone.

Everyday worries can be answered through consulting religious authority or religious community, or both. Dayana Lengauer profiles the rise of a young female blogger in Bandung, Indonesia, whose account of her search for a pious husband, then of her engagement and marriage, attracted an online audience of young men and women who experienced similar worries. In a country where remaining unmarried is discouraged and where attempts to find the “right” partner often means navigating social pressures and religious authority, the risk of sharing intimate worries with an anonymous public was mitigated by stating that she hoped to structure a pious life.

None of these themes simply transfer unmediated from offline life to online life or vice versa. They are not one-to-one representations. Instead, they undergo transformations that suggest that while religion is a central feature of these debates, religion is neither the beginning nor the end of the conversation. This is most evident in the essays here which show inversions in the religious order of things. For example, how should one properly relate to a Sufi master or to an Islamic preacher online? As Ismail Fajrie Alatas and Martin Slama each demonstrate, Indonesian Muslims give different answers to these questions. Whereas moderators on online forums worry about how followers should properly address a Sufi master without subverting his authority, middle-aged female members of Islamic prayer groups have discovered that social media are an efficient way to directly contact male Islamic preachers, asking for guidance on private concerns at any hour of the day. If using social media is a growing but ambivalent practice for Sufi communities, it is essential for mainstream popular preachers, who find they cannot maintain a core audience if they ignore texted queries from followers.

The potential to proselytize via social media explains why digital venues have become essential for religious life in Islamic Southeast Asia. Bart Barendregt traces the popularity of Inteam, a Malaysian nasheed group (Islamic a cappella boy band), that uses a variety of social media platforms to amplify its musical distribution and to connect with its fans across the region. Inteam enjoys artistic and economic independence from major labels because they distribute music directly to fans online. Similarly, Wahyuddin Halim profiles the rise of Usman Pateha, a young Islamic preacher from a peripheral part of South Sulawesi. Through strategic use of Facebook, Usman has developed an audience of followers within As’adiyah, an influential but nonetheless regional Islamic organization in eastern Indonesia, to now national stardom, with two national television shows. These examples underscore a financial feature to the institutional and theological intersections of religion and social media. Social media have also become a key site for new religious proselytization, such as One Day One Juz, a movement that encourages members to read one chapter (juz) of the Qur’an every day and connects them via WhatsApp groups in which users are obliged to report their Qur’an reading activi