Rebranding Islam

Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru

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James Bourk Hoesterey
Studies of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , November
     2015.
     296 pages.
     $21.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780804796378.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

James Bourk Hoesterey’s book Rebranding Islam is a detailed ethnographic study of the Indonesian televangelist and self-help guru Kyai Haji Abdullah Gymnastiar, also known as Aa Gym (Brother Gym). The preacher first rose to prominence in the 1990s, blending Islam with the fields of self-help and psychology. He quickly garnered a large following and became a popular icon, a figure Hoesterey describes as a combination of Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey, and Dr. Phil (11). Gym’s religious message focused on piety, moral behavior, and prosperity, conveyed through a wide range of media including televised sermons, radio broadcasts, books and pamphlets, newspaper columns, and training seminars. Considering this focus on piety and morality—and Gym’s image as a doting husband—the news in 2006 that Gym had secretly taken a second wife came as quite a shock. His fans felt angry and betrayed, and the preacher’s popularity plummeted.

In this work, Hoesterey analyzes the highs and lows of this Muslim preacher’s career, and traces the history of Gym’s popular self-help program Manajemen Qolbu (Heart Management), often abbreviated as MQ. In doing so, Hoesterey draws from a rich fountain of sources and research. For more than two years, he accompanied Gym on his religious tours–attending public rallies, sitting in on private meetings and planning sessions, interviewing the preacher in person, and talking with his employees and followers.

This book is more than a study of one preacher however. As Hoesterey notes, it also explores how popular preachers such as Gym managed to “recalibrate religious authority, Muslim subjectivity, and religious politics in post-authoritarian Indonesia” (xix). These three topics serve as the main structure of this work. Hoesterey dedicates two chapters to each topic, framing them between a comprehensive introduction rich in theory and a conclusion that examines Gym’s recent years.

Starting with the theme of religious authority, Hoesterey notes how Muslim preachers’ use of new forms of media and their own charisma have influenced the practice and study of religious authority. Max Weber’s discussion of charisma along with Dale Eickelman and Jon Anderson’s New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere (Indiana University Press, 1999/2003) are particularly influential in this regard. At the same time, however, these approaches do not explain why particular preachers succeed and others fail.

Hoesterey thus employs another idea—faith brands—to show how a preacher’s image can rise and fall, depending on the public’s opinion of his brand. Chapter 1 introduces this concept, demonstrating how Gym actively presented himself as a pious Muslim, a devoted husband, and a man who advocated for a sincere, honest, and moral life. In this fashion, Gym built an audience that saw the preacher as a religious authority in the field of ethical and moral guidance, an image that would later crumble with the news of his second wife. Chapter 2 builds on this argument, highlighting the work of Gym and other Muslim trainers in Indonesia. Hoesterey shows how these individuals reframed scientific knowledge in terms of religious wisdom, thereby redefining Islamic knowledge, and claiming religious authority in another manner–a practical, everyday approach to religion.

Turning to Muslim subjectivity, chapters 3 and 4 question the roots of Gym’s discourse, with a particular focus on the preacher’s MQ Entrepreneur Training, and the promotion of civic virtue and Muslim citizenship. While these themes fall under the broader discourse of neoliberalism, this theory alone by no means sums up the style and content of Gym’s work. For sure, the preacher draws on Western psychology and management theory, including the ideas of Stephen Covey and others. Yet, as Hoesterey argues, he draws equally from the life and words of the Prophet Muhammad, incorporating Islamic ideas of ethics and economics into his discussions, and thus concurrently reframing Islamic traditions and Western psychology.

Chapter 5 turns to the politics of public piety, eloquently demonstrating how the concept of political Islam is more than electoral politics and the pursuit of an Islamic state. In Gym’s case, the goal was not to replace the state, but to endow it with Islamic ethics, providing another model of morality for the general public to follow (27). The preacher used his fame to discipline and shame the state, inviting politicians to appear on his programs, and thereby summoning them to publicly display their piety (150). Chapter 6 returns to the idea of branding, using the preacher’s fall from grace to reveal the fleeting nature of his religious authority. Disgraced and abandoned, Gym turned to Islamic self-help for comfort and a chance at redemption, before slowly reaching out to his followers to try to rebuild his image.

This book has a lot to offer and is appropriate for scholars and graduate students across a variety of fields, including anthropology, political science, religious studies, and sociology. Hoesterey’s analysis engages in a number of important debates around the fragmentation and diversification of religious authority; the definition and evolution of political Islam; and the influence of neoliberalism. His contributions, especially the concept of faith brands, open the door for considerable discussion and research. In particular, I believe other preachers merit investigation using Hoesterey’s focus on faith brands and political Islam beyond an Islamic state.

Hoesterey’s work is also the first monograph dedicated to a media preacher from Southeast Asia. Previous studies concentrate on Arab preachers such as  Amr Khaled and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, thus Hoesterey’s book makes an important contribution by expanding the study of Muslim media preachers beyond the Arab world. In addition, Hoesterey’s comprehensive study of one preacher presents an important model for others to follow. The scholarly community could benefit from book-length analyses of other media preachers, including Arabs like Tariq al-Suwaidan or Ahmad al-Shugairi, the Indian preacher Zakir Naik, the American preacher Hamza Yusuf, and others. In this regard, Hoesterey’s book sets the standard for a thorough study of one media preacher’s life and work, weaving biography and history into a theoretical analysis with broad academic implications.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tuve Floden is an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
May 10, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James B. Hoesterey is Assistant Professor of Religion at Emory University.

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