Hijrah – between radical and moderate Islam

A new religious movement is taking Indonesia by storm – via the Internet. But what are the motives of the clerics who lead it?

Hijrah – between radical and moderate Islam AFP Photo/Daniel Sorabji

A rising tide of Islamic religiosity in Indonesia is being propelled, among other influences, by a local “hijrah movement,” which demands greater personal adherence to Shariah law, but which some observers believe has the potential to further spread radicalism and create major divisions within Indonesian society. Conformity with conservative Muslim identity – ironically just as Muslims in the Middle East are becoming more liberal – is impacting all age groups here. Since at least 2010, young Indonesians have been increasingly attracted to the movement in their quest to become better Muslims and abandon what they have come to see as bad habits. 

Hijrah, Arabic for migrate, holds two different meanings in Islam. The first usually refers to the migration of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 to escape persecution. His hijrah marks the first Islamic Hijri year, or calendar. The second definition of hijrah refers to a continuous changing of attitude in the direction of greater adherence to Islamic law. This transformation covers nearly all aspects of life including one that is most apparent – fashion – as well as increasing the demand for Islamic-compliant services such as education and finance.

The term hijrah was also employed during the heyday of the Islamic State by sympathizers who used it to describe their attempts to join the terrorist group in the Middle East. More moderate groups have tried to reclaim the word and sterilize it from the negative connotations of the Islamic State, but there are concerns that the ideology remains virtually identical. Some believe the populist trend may be short-lived. While many hijrah communities are developing in Indonesia and young clerics are using a relatively new approach to proselytize Islam to appeal to the younger generation, skeptics point to similar movements in the past that have failed to develop here.

The Darul Arqam movement, which had its beginnings in Malaysia in the late 1960s but was banned there in 1994, established a presence in Indonesia in the 1990s and may have been a precursor to the hijrah movement. Its members adopted lifestyles that replicated life in seventh century Arabia in what was effectively a Muslim “back to nature” movement that conveniently included encouragement of polygamy. 

No romance

One of the leading influences in the country’s hijrah movement is the Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran (ITP) community, which advises young Muslims against involvement in intimate relationships with members of the opposite sex (pacaran), which Islam prohibits as it may lead to zina (sexual relations outside of marriage). The community, established in September 2015, held a national gathering in Bekasi, West Java Province, on April 15. Its founder, La Ode Munafar, and actor Cholidi Asadil Alam, led the meeting, which was attended by thousands of youths.

In his speech during the gathering, Munafar reiterated his concern that casual sex and dating have led to declining morals among young Indonesians. He vowed to free Indonesia from premarital dating by 2024, utilizing social media and hosting offline counseling events. During the gathering, women and men were separated by a long piece of cloth while listening to speeches about the possible harms of dating. At the end of the day, they recited a pledge to stay single – and supposedly virgins – until they found “the one” to marry according to Islamic law. 

The rise of the ITP community and the values it promotes has raised concerns about a possible wave of child marriages. While Munafar said marriage was not the only way to avoid premarital sex, he acknowledged that he did not set minimum age standards to be adopted by the community. “The official minimum marriage age is already set by the government, but age is not the only factor to determine whether someone is ready to be married,” he said. “It is not only wealth or physical preparedness. Someone may marry when he or she can perform their rights and duties as a husband or wife.”

While calling on youth to embrace Islamic teachings and observe more religious rituals that will provide them with alternative activities to fill their free time, the ITP community appears to fail to address one of the main risks for young Indonesians: unsafe sex due to a lack of reproductive health education. Rather, the ITP may exacerbate the situation as its growing prominence, and the general hijrah phenomenon, may mean that talking about sex becomes more of a taboo within an increasingly conservative society. In most cases, pushing abstinence has not successful in eradicating premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies. 

Without the government’s intervention, the movement will stand as a challenge to programs aimed at ending child marriage and lowering infant and maternal mortality rates. In the longer term, it may result in continuously low productivity and the limited involvement of women in the economy.

Social media strategy

A large presence on popular social media platforms is a key factor in attracting young Muslims to the values being spread by Indonesia’s hijrah communities. The ITP community, as well as most hijrah-promoting groups, has a stranglehold on the virtual world. ITP boasts 638,000 followers on Instagram and 400,000 on its Facebook fan page. Munafar, who has 45,000 Instagram followers,

The quest for righteousness reaches ridiculous heights when the makers of detergent, refrigerators and even cat food claim they are the only halal-certified manufacturers that the country’s Islamic community can trust.

claims that 20,000 young Muslims have registered with ITP branches in 80 cities and districts nationwide.

The hijrah communities and their leaders clearly understand the importance of a social media strategy in disseminating their beliefs. ITP, Munafar said, has a dedicated graphic design and social media team tasked with posting more than 30 content items to its Instagram, Facebook, Line, WhatsApp and Telegram accounts every day. “Is there a youth who does not use social media today? Its outreach is also wider,” Munafar said, adding that the ITP mainly targets Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010, in its campaigns. A similar campaign is run by the Bandung, West Java-based Shift-Pemuda Hijrah. The community has 1.5 million Instagram followers, while its founder, the increasingly popular young cleric Hanan Attaki, has 3.4 million followers on Instagram. The hijrah community emphasizes the use of informal approaches and touches on issues relevant to Muslim youth, rather than quoting heavily from Islamic verse, to engage new followers.

Hanan, the founder, is always seen wearing a dark beanie and casual clothes, rather than traditional white robes and Muslim skull cap, while delivering sermons at weekly or monthly gatherings at the community’s mosque in Bandung. Such gatherings usually find the mosque bursting at the seams, forcing them to move to a larger mosque nearby. The group regularly updates its blog, pemudahijrah.com, with personal stories of its members. A popular Indonesian skateboarder, Fani Krismandar, and a former member of Brigez, a notorious Bandung biker gang, are among the members who have shared their journeys to find Islam, repenting and abandoning their previous lifestyles. The involvement of other public figures including soap opera actors and rock musicians is likely one factor increasing the appeal of the hijrah movement to young Indonesians. The public, particularly young people looking for direction, can relate to the experience of these “migrating” celebrities.

Hijrah economy

Yuswohady, author of the book “#GenerationMuslim,” said during an interview with the Kumparan news portal in June that clerics in the hijrah movement were filling the gap created by a lack of figures who understood and were eager to discuss issues relevant to Indonesia’s younger generation. “Before 2010, most clerics talked about vertical religiosity, which is the relationship between humans and their creator. But the new clerics talk about contextual issues such as fashion and dating – issues that young Muslims are interested in,” he said. The hijrah trend, according to Yuswohady, generates demand for Shariah-compliant businesses. Indonesia’s more than 220 million Muslims constitute a huge potential market for both domestic and foreign companies in the food and beverage, banking, insurance, education and hospitality industries, among others. Manufacturers are racing to obtain halal certification to win market approval. The quest for righteousness reaches ridiculous heights when the makers of detergent, refrigerators and even cat food claim they are the only halal-certified manufacturers that the country’s Islamic community can trust.

Hanna Faridl, a spokeswoman for modest fashion e-commerce marketplace HijUp, said the company had seen increasing demand for hijabs and other Shariah-compliant clothing in the past year. Faridl told CNBC Indonesia in March that sales of hijabs and socks doubled in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period last year. She declined to provide figures but attributed the rise in sales to the hijrah phenomenon. Independent business sources confirm that Indonesia’s textile industry, dominated by ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs, is delighted with the Islamic fashion trend. 

That said, Indonesia remains a laggard in developing its Shariah economy. As of 2016, the Islamic finance sector had a meager market share of just 5 percent of the country’s total banking assets, compared to 51 percent in Saudi Arabia, 33 percent in Qatar, 24 percent in Malaysia and 20 percent in the United Arab Emirates. The sector has just 23 million customers out of a total population of around 260 million. The reasons for the low market share are mainly the lack of strong brand names, access barriers owing to a lack of Islamic banking infrastructure, poor Islamic finance literacy and little development potential due to a missing regulatory framework.

The establishment of a national committee for Shariah finance in 2017 by President Joko Widodo is expected to address these issues and allow Indonesian Muslims to utilize the Shariah banking system. From a customer point of view, a strong and regulated Shariah financing industry should provide a secure option for Muslims attempting to avoid riba, or the practice of charging interest. More Muslims are avoiding banks for this reason and choosing to obtain financial assistance, including borrowing hundreds of millions of rupiah to purchase homes, from institutions claiming to be compliant with Islamic law despite the lack of security guarantees. Arguably, the many recent fraud cases associated with purported low-cost pilgrimage tour packages to Mecca have profited from the hijrah movement. 

Monetizing online sermons

For hijrah communities and clerics, there is a potential gold mine in the number of clicks on their social media platforms, although it is not known if all the groups monetize their accounts. A report published by Tempo magazine on June 18 found that tech-savvy clerics may generate tens of millions of rupiah per month from videos posted on YouTube. Data analysis of the Tafaqquh video channel on YouTube, owned by popular yet controversial cleric Abdul Somad Batubara, for example, showed that he may earn between Rp 300 million and Rp 400 million ($20,000 - $27,000) per month from his channel. The analysis, by digital solutions firm Indonesia Digital Entertainment, concluded that the channel had been viewed more than 60 million times and the videos were watched for an average of 13 minutes each.

Alfa Records, the record label that works with Tafaqquh, hired a company, IDE, in 2017 to optimize the channel’s content and generate more revenue. Alfa Records head Asep Nugraha said two methods were commonly used to maximize revenue. First is embedding ads on uploaded videos to make money through Google AdSense. YouTube channels that use AdSense receive 68 percent of ad revenue. To use AdSense, a channel must first rack up 4,000 hours of viewing time and 1,000 subscribers. Tafaqquh already has 430,000 subscribers and 2.3 million hours of viewing time.

The value of revenue from ads is determined through cost per mille (CPM), a formula for revenue per 1,000 impressions. An impression is a measure of how many times and for how long an ad is viewed. For example, if a video with 10 million viewers carries an ad that is watched 50,000 times, the video is

The hijrah movement is gaining pace in Indonesia at the same time that the dangers of Islamic radicalism are becoming more apparent.

said to have 50,000 impressions. According to Asep, the value of CPM in Indonesia is between 25 cents and $1 per 1,000 impressions. “During Ramadan it can rise to $2 per 1,000 impressions,” said Asep, adding that the value of CPM is determined by advertisers, not the channel owner.

To raise revenue, Alfa Records labels uploaded content as copyrighted. This allows the company to claim ad revenue for content that is uploaded by other parties without authorization and to take the content down from YouTube. IDE chief executive Gustiranda Mopili said Batubara’s revenue from copyright violations alone was as much as Rp 400 million per month.

Hanan, of Shift-Pemuda Hijrah, has also used Alfa Records’ services, according to Fani, the skateboarder, who is the group’s creative director. Hanan’s Pemuda Hijrah channel has provided good financial benefits, he added. Fani said it was easy for Hanan’s more interesting videos to receive a large number of impressions. However, he was reluctant to say how much revenue the channel was generating. “We have not seriously worked on YouTube monetization due to limited human resources,” Fani told Tempo. Hanan also declined to comment about revenue. He only said that YouTube had been effective in drawing the interest of young members of the congregation. “The number of viewers is about the same as those who come to the religious study gatherings, which is between 6,000 and 7,000 people,” he said. 

Radical hijrah

As in many other movements within Islam, questions have been raised about the motivations of the clerics and pioneers of Indonesia’s hijrah phenomenon. Is hijrah a softer introduction to extreme interpretations of Shariah law? According to verses in the Koran and Hadith, Muslims should never stop performing hijrah. Hijrah is also seen as a way to more effectively spread Islam and as protection against pressure from infidels. This alone may provide a reason for a young Muslim who is new to the religion’s teachings to turn to extremist interpretations of Islam.

The hijrah movement is gaining pace in Indonesia at the same time that the dangers of Islamic radicalism are becoming more apparent. Religious sectarianism is a threat to the country’s social fabric that could wipe out the political and economic progress Indonesia has made since it recovered from the Asian monetary crisis of 1997-98. 

Some are concerned that the movement could lead to greater support for radical interpretations of the faith and in the process damage Indonesia’s delicate diversity. Lailatul Fitriyah, a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Notre Dame, in the United States, recently told feminist Indonesian web magazine Magdalene that the current interpretation of hijrah was potentially destructive. She said one historical interpretation of the concept was that Muslims should not accept living under the rule of non-Muslims, and should migrate to areas ruled by fellow Muslims. This was one of the basic beliefs of the Islamic State movement.

Some Indonesian Muslims believe they have to create their own spaces, given that the country has a secular government. “This is becoming a process of social segregation,” Lailatul said. “It is not a process of expanding our universe and working together with different people, but rather is restricting our lives.” She said Muslims were being told they must wear the right clothes and live in Muslim housing developments – a process she believes is extremely dangerous. The movement is strongest among the educated urban middle class, where traditional community links are weakest, she said. Other commentators equate the sense of having to defend and strongly identify with Islam as a legacy of the sense of persecution among the Muslim community that developed during the 32-year regime of Soeharto, the late autocratic president. 

Political expedience 

Rising conservatism has been and will likely continue to be capitalized on by politicians to secure their interests. Since 1998, more than 440 Shariah-inspired local bylaws have been adopted, such as requiring women to wear headscarves or restricting alcohol sales. 

Local authorities may argue that the issuance of such rules is needed to protect society, but the belief persists that the main purpose is to gain public support and votes in the next election. Failure to provide a strong counterargument may mean that identity politics will become a permanent feature of the country’s democracy. At the least, there are concerns that people joining the hijrah movement may develop a “holier-than-thou attitude” and separate themselves from other members of Indonesian society. Social pressure to ignore the holidays of other groups such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day is part of this process. 

Clerics involved in hijrah have an important duty to ensure that their followers remain within the “big group” of Indonesian national identity. Discussion should be encouraged, as the traditional one-way preaching method is becoming more outdated and has likely led to forced interpretations of Islam’s values. The national government needs to monitor the development and direction of the hijrah movement and realign it through persuasion to blend in with the national agenda. Active participation by all parties could turn the hijrah phenomenon into a potential weapon to combat radicalism, instead of being a gateway to extremism and violence.


Shinta Eka Puspasari is an analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.

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