Indonesia: Innovation and Invocation

By Aubrey Belford

JAKARTA—Twenty-five miles south of the city—far enough from the urban tangle for the air to be breathable—the unfinished Sentul City housing estates are, on the surface, familiar imitations of Western suburbia. A sign off the six-lane expressway leading to the development welcomes visitors to the “City of Ennovation.” Just alongside the development sits the Bellanova Country Mall, the entry point to a landscape of wide boulevards and meticulous landscaping, detached houses, and empty lots awaiting new construction.

The parking lot outside the mall is packed with sedans and SUVs. At an arcade inside, Rina Damayanti, a 29-year-old house- ife, watches as her husband, Aldi Rahman, thumbs the remote control of a miniature car carrying their 4 year-old son, Rosihan. She says life here beats the chaos of Jakarta—it is clean, comfortable and friendly.

“It’s better here,” she says. “There’s community life here. People make a priority of self-discipline and educating their kids.”

Just across the expressway, a similar housing development is rising. For the moment, this aspiring rival—called Bukit Az-Zikra, or “The Hill of Invocation”—comprises mostly rows of unbuilt homes. But its developers are confident that it will soon be a thriving, 400-home housing complex. Unlike the unabashedly worldly Sentul City, however, Bukit Az-Zikra will offer a vision of modernity and prosperity specifically intended for the observant Indonesian Muslim.

About 40 people already live in the complex, which will ultimately feature an office and shopping complex—based on “Islamic principles” of trade and business—to rival the mall across the expressway. All residents, when at the complex, are obliged to join prayers five times a day. Smoking is banned, and traditional Islamic dress is mandatory. Towering above the complex is the 10,000-person capacity Muammar Gaddafi Mosque—built with funding from the Libyan government’s international missionary arm.

Beside the mosque is a large, white-walled villa. This is the home of Arifin Il- ham, a celebrity television preacher and the public face of Bukit Az-Zikra. The housing complex’s ethos is based on the same message that Arifin brings to Indonesians in his television and radio sermons, and to the thousands-strong mass gatherings he holds for zikr, or Sufi-inspired chanting. Society is full of maksiat (immorality) and corruption, he argues, and in need of internal spiritual renewal. It is a message that resonates with Indonesia’s swelling middle class, who make up a key part of Arifin’s audience and are the explicit target market for his version of Islamicized suburbia.

Standing on his balcony as the call to prayer booms from the mosque, Arifin—a boyishly handsome man in his early 40s who speaks in a coarse growl—reflects on the needs of his followers. “They’re already successful. They already have the world. But—” Arifin breaks into English. “His soul—poor. All are fine, have money, popularity, success, but no heart.”

In other words, all this new money—and the secular suburban life on the other side of the expressway—is bad for the soul. Living alongside Muslims according to Islamic principles is the way to remove this taint. “Even charitable people, without an environment of brotherhood, can become weak,” Arifin says.

Arifin’s popularity is evidence that the growth of a middle class can take an unpredictable path. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, prosperity has not led inexorably to an embrace of secular values.


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Aubrey Belford is a freelance reporter who writes about Asia from his base in Jakarta.

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