Initially it was just a chat at a social gathering. Then the mid-30s Bandung-born woman admitted she was scared. “This hijrah movement is so threatening, personally threatening,” she declared. A Muslim, she did not wear a head covering and did not intend to, but as a result she found herself the subject of barbs from conservatives who expected her to conform.
I followed up with a telephone interview to ask her to explain her fears. It was a bad connection, but behind the woman I could hear her husband asking who it was. “Don’t say anything that will make us a target,” I heard him whispering to his wife, even though I’d made it clear that her name would not be used.
It should be no surprise that members of minority communities have reason to fear the rise of aggressive, exclusivist Islam. But now even Muslims who decline to join the so-called hijrah movement, in which they more closely associate with perceived Muslim norms such as the use of head coverings for women and beards for men, are coming under attack.
Clearly, the hijrah movement aims to subvert Indonesian society as part of the longstanding push by Salafist elements to persuade Indonesian Muslims to abandon their former moderate position on their religion for a more straight-jacketed approach.
The sense of isolation felt by that woman should not have surprised me. My children, attending a Jakarta Islamic school, had come under pressure about their two dogs, with suggestions that it was un-Islamic to keep them. My wife was told by other mothers that she should cover her hair, which she refused to do. “My relationship with God is a direct one; it is not a relationship in which other people have the right to interfere,” she insisted.
It’s not necessary to look too far to see the obvious signs of religious conformity. An increasing majority of women wear the hijab, while it is increasingly expected for men to attend Friday prayers at the mosque. The phenomenon is being called “hijrah” in remembrance of the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina. Liberals condemn the movement as the Arabization of Indonesian culture.
The Indonesian expression of hijrah as a social force is one of two common interpretations of the term. It assumes that Muslims will adhere to the outward forms of the religion, as well as apply its moral teachings to their daily lives. The other suggests a physical migration, often to a place – such as Medina – where Islam is not entrenched. This interpretation suggests a proselytizing role in spreading the religion beyond current borders.
The second interpretation has given rise to the illustration of the “hijrah clock” (below), widely found on social media, in which a society comes to be dominated by the social mores espoused by the movement. Arguably, this interpretation can also be applied to Indonesia, where the purist hijrah movement is fighting to overcome a more tolerant, less observant Muslim practice and, with it, the secular state.
The Islamic website Dar al-Ifta al Misriyyah defines moral hijrah as “a transitional line between two states, a state of weakness to a state of security, the hijrah of the soul is likewise a transitional line between the human weakness for sin to a position of security from sin, a state of disobedience to one of obedience.”
Clearly, the hijrah movement aims to subvert Indonesian society as part of the longstanding push by Salafist elements to persuade Indonesian Muslims to abandon their former moderate position on their religion for a more straight-jacketed approach. The movement represents a threat to the unity of Indonesia in that its adherents are not prepared to give breathing space to minorities, in a clear rejection of the national motto of “Unity in Diversity” that holds the nation of Indonesia together. Now, as my conversation with the woman from Bandung demonstrated, the term “minorities” includes Muslims who continue to insist that they will maintain their relaxed approach to their religion.
Ironically, there are those who believe that once the conservative wave has run its course, the main victim could be religion itself. After all, in the heartland of Salafism – Saudi Arabia – austere elements are being rejected by society.
One potential source of damage to the purist mind-set is the criminal element. As always, there are those who see financial advantage in the move to “purify” society. The enthusiasm with which Indonesians have embraced the minor pilgrimage, umrah, is one clear example. Many thousands of sincere Muslims, keen to witness the Holy Land without having to wait 20 years or more to go on the hajj, have been hoodwinked by smart operators who take their money and leave them stranded at airports.
In another recent case, four people were arrested for allegedly defrauding at least 270 people in West Java Province and Lampung, in south Sumatra, out of Rp 23 billion ($1.6 million) in a scam involving fictitious Shariah-compliant property. They promised to build houses in Muslim property enclaves, another popular expression of the hijrah movement whereby good Muslims do not have to be distracted by people of other – implicitly lesser – faiths living near them.
Some believe that an overdose of excessive religiosity can end up canceling itself out. Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol, writing in The New York Times last December, recounted how this is happening in some Muslim countries. He cited Arab Barometer, a research network based at Stanford University, which found that in six Muslim countries, “trust in Islamic parties” and “trust in religious leaders” had both declined.
While the decline is not dramatic, those who describe themselves as “not religious” grew from 8 percent to 13 percent from 2013 to 2018. A range of factors is blamed, not least the shock at the excesses of the Islamic State. But, notes Akyol, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, 40 years of the Islamic Republic in Iran have done nothing to make that country more religious. Meanwhile in Turkey, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Islamists have demonstrated their “insatiable lust for power.” He cites Turkish-born sociologist Mucahit Bilici as stating that “today Islamism in Turkey is associated in the public mind with corruption and injustice.”
In Turkey, states Akyol, there is a rise in “deism,” or belief in God but not in religion. “If Islamists and conservatives keep their old ways, they may face a radical version of the Enlightenment: fiercely anti-clerical and decidedly anti-religious, reminiscent of what turned France against a hegemonic Catholic Church.”
Indonesia’s established Islamic institutions are by no means blind to the threat that Salafist conformity presents to traditional belief systems. Nahdlatul Ulama, which is Indonesia’s largest mass Islamic organization, and its youth organization, GP Ansor, have been promoting Islam Nusantara, a concept by which Islam that incorporates cultural influences that have accrued over time is accepted as religiously valid. Muhammadiyah, the country’s number two mass Islamic body, is aware that ultraorthodox teachers have infiltrated its teaching institutions.
The Indonesian government is certainly aware of the threat presented by hard-line Islam and the hijrah movement. One insider has commented that President Joko Widodo appears more concerned about the threat to traditional, moderate Islam than anything else.
In the meantime, ordinary people going about their business, such as the woman from Bandung, feel threatened if they do not conform to or join the movement, due to peer pressure. The public needs to be reminded that what is being threatened by the hijrah movement is their sense of being Indonesian. That is what needs to be protected rather than the imagined moral purity of a movement that represents an insidious infiltration of the state by what is essentially an alien force.