The young Muslims challenging Islam’s status quo

The young Muslims challenging Islam’s status quo

PADANG, Indonesia – A boy band belted out songs about loving the Prophet Muhammad. A young woman wearing a full-face veil was moved to tears by the faith of new converts. Later, the crowd applauded as a 15-year-old girl converted to Islam before their eyes. Many posted selfies on social media, delighting in their shared faith.

The scene was an annual festival in Padang, part of a new conservative Islamic movement in Indonesia known as Hijrah that is attracting millions of believers, many of them young and drawn by celebrity preachers on Instagram.

Islamic conservatism has been on the rise in Indonesia for years, even as the government has long tried to maintain a secular​, religiously diverse​ society. The current iteration in the Hijrah movement is distinct in its use of social media to spread the word, and in its appeal to the young. And its popularity is generating concern among government and religious officials, who fear ​it could erode a more moderate brand of Islam​.

Kamaruddin Amin, a director with Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, said his department has begun a counternarrative to challenge the Hijrah movement’s momentum. The brand of conservatism it promotes, he said, “is not good for Islam in the Indonesian context.”

From the government’s viewpoint, behind the Hijrah movement “is a very threatening ideology called Wahhabism,” a fundamentalist strain of Islam that originated from Saudi Arabia, said Dadi Darmadi, a professor at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University in Jakarta. He called Hijrah followers “born-again Muslims.”

But Derry Sulaiman, a Muslim preacher who spoke at the festival, said in an interview that followers were misunderstood. “We don’t talk about radicalism,” he said. “We don’t fight the government. We just come to listen to the experiences from everyone on how they feel after Islam.”

There are no clear figures on the number of Hijrah adherents – many of them self-identify with the movement – but they are estimated to be at least in the tens of millions based on the social media following of popular Hijrah preachers. The movement is emerging while opposition Islamic parties have also become more outspoken, for example, mobilizing hundreds of people in protests against the building of Christian churches. Last year, they helped pass a law banning sex outside marriage in Indonesia.

A 2019 survey of millennials and Generation Z youths, conducted by the Jakarta-based research firm Alvara, showed that 60% of the roughly 1,500 respondents surveyed across 34 provinces identified as “puritan and ultraconservative.” A tally of the Instagram accounts of 12 of Indonesia’s most prominent Hijrah preachers showed that there are at least 45.8 million followers.

To be Hijrah is to essentially lead a more Islamic life – encompassing everything from dress to dating, meaning more women are wearing the hijab, or the niqab, the full-face veil. More men are sporting beards and religious attire. The movement’s preachers reject anything that could be potentially Haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, like dating or, sometimes, secular music.

Actors and musicians self-identified as Hijrah have used their social media accounts to publicly celebrate the rediscovery of their faith. Young people have become supporters of the “Indonesia Without Dating” movement, which promotes arranged marriages.

The movement fits into a rich religious culture in Indonesia. Although the country is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, it has five other official religions and more than 200 unofficial ones. Most of the 230 million Muslims in Indonesia practice a form of Islam that combines the religion with local rituals, like visiting the graves of ancestors.

Nesa Okta Mirza, 27, who is preparing to go to graduate school, said she identified as part of the Hijrah movement in 2014. When she put on the hijab, though, her parents objected because no one else in her family wears a headscarf. She recalled how a relative criticized her, asking, “‘Are you ISIS?’”

Nesa said that, influenced by Hijrah preachers who discourage contact between men and women outside marriage, she will no longer hitch rides on the back of motorbikes driven by men. She said she has also stopped binge-watching Korean dramas because the habit was cutting into her sleep and affecting the quality of her life, which is also against her faith, she explained.

Later this year, she plans to send her CV to a friend to help her “taaruf,” the word used to describe the practice of arranged marriages.

The government, though, is concerned about some of these practices, fearful that they could upend the country’s multireligious society. Kamaruddin, of the religious affairs ministry, said his office has encouraged young Muslim preachers to emphasize that Islam must “appreciate diversity.” He noted that some Hijrah followers have built housing for only Muslims, or have criticized women for not wearing the hijab.

The rise of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia has compounded the government’s concerns. In recent years, President Joko Widodo’s government has banned groups like Hizbut Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front, which have called for a Muslim caliphate in Indonesia.

Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a senior official with Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, said Hijrah followers “want Islam to be a closed identity, a cultural marker that makes them separate from the rest of society.”

“We do not give them a green light to be speaking in the name of Islam, to be the only representatives of Islam,” he said.

The group has called for the government to ban the annual festival in Padang, known as HijrahFest. Last year, it complained that the event’s organizers had used its logos without permission, resulting in the sudden cancellation of the festival.

“Hijrah” is Arabic for journey, and the term is most closely associated with Muhammad’s migration to Medina to escape persecution in Mecca. The majority of people who make up the movement are Muslim by birth, and are rededicating themselves to their faith.

Arie Untung, the founder of HijrahFest, said the group was frequently criticized by other Muslims for not being puritan enough. “I think we actually have the same destination, but we’re on different cars,” said Arie, a former VJ on MTV. He described HijrahFest as primarily a commercial event, not a religious one.

At this year’s event, salespeople promoted halal cosmetics and Quran memorization services. All attendees, regardless of religion, were required to dress conservatively. The roomful of Muslim men and women were separated by gender. One preacher said he would teach people a prayer to curb any LGBTQ elements in their family.

Natta Reza, a prominent Islamic boy-band singer, was a headliner. He proposed to his wife in 2017, within hours of discovering her Instagram account. They married soon after and are now social media influencers who promote arranged marriages.

Natta said his years of dating were “not good.” “I hope this can be a lesson for the singles,” he said from the stage. “Don’t be a stupid person like me, who took care of someone else’s soul mate,” he said, referring to his dating life before he became a Hijrah influencer.

The crowd hooted as his wife laughed behind her veil.

The preacher who spoke, Derry, 44, was once a guitarist for Betrayer, a popular heavy metal band. He said that during that time, he partied every night and had “many girlfriends.” In 1998, like other Indonesian musicians who discovered Hijrah, he left his band and started creating Islamic music after a fellow musician told him to return to his faith.

Now, he creates TikTok content, saying he “must bring positive vibes” to young believers. On the last night of HijrahFest, Derry closed the evening by leading other Muslim preachers in a prayer for repentance.

He, and many others in the audience, wept as they recalled their sins.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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