Center for Strategic Communication

By Mark Woodward and Inayah Rohmaniyah*

Earlier this month (December 13-15) we were privileged to participate in a “The 2nd International Conference on Islamic Media” sponsored by the Saudi sponsored Muslim World League (MWL, Rabita al-Alam al-Islami) and the Indonesian Ministry of Religion in Jakarta Indonesia.  Tension between the co-sponsors was evident in the selection of participants, the themes of formal presentations and in social interaction over the course of the conference. Differing perspectives on religious inclusivism, freedom of expression, social media and gender were especially apparent.

The conference theme was “The New Media and Information Technology.” Approximately 400 delegates and guests from 39 countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia were in attendance.  Jakarta was chosen as the conference venue because it was the site of the first conference that was held in 1980.  Many observers noted that the timing of the two conferences was not coincidental.  Both were held shortly after social and political upheavals that presented serious challenges to Saudi Arabia – the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Arab Spring of 2011.

Indonesian participants noted that the pairing of MWL and Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion was “peculiar” because of their very different orientations and agendas.  MWL is an international organization founded by the Saudi government in 1962 with the purpose of globalizing Saudi Wahhabism and countering other understandings of Islam and secularism. The Indonesian Ministry of Religion has a more inclusive understanding of Islam, and unlike MWL, actively promotes democracy and freedom of expression.

The Guest List

MWL selected conference delegates from the Middle East, Africa and Europe who share the leadership’s Wahhabi orientation. Efforts to secure a similarly sympathetic Indonesian contingent failed. The Indonesian Ministry of Religion delegated responsibility for inviting participants to academics in the Islamic University system, who invited Muslim scholars, journalists and activists with diverse religious views. The result was that while delegations from Middle Eastern, European and African countries supported the MWL agenda, the Indonesian contingent was less sympathetic. While participants included representatives of Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia, and other Indonesian organizations affiliated with MWL, none were invited to make formal presentations.

Most of the Indonesian participants were university lecturers with religious orientations very different from their Saudi hosts. This led to a marked contrast in the themes of formal presentations and a combination of humorous remarks and sometimes bitter comments about the implicit Saudi agenda.  Some found it ironic that Muslims who Wahhabis think of as kafir (unbelievers) because they engage in “deviant” forms of religious devotion including the veneration of saints, were invited at all. There were many sarcastic comments about the contrast between the pious pontificating of Saudi delegates and the burgeoning “temporary marriage”/sex tourism trade catering primarily to Saudis centered in Bogor, only a short distance from the conference venue. Others were angered by what they saw as Saudi arrogance and their exclusivist, self-referential use of the terms Islam and Muslim. One described Saudis as “colonialists,” echoing a theme discussed previously on this blog.

Formal Presentations

The conference included formal remarks by political figures, academic papers, mostly by Indonesian scholars, triumphalist, self congratulatory presentations by representatives of WML sponsored Islamic television networks in the United Kingdom and South Africa, speeches by WML officials calling for Muslim unity in efforts to counter western moral decadence and the destabilizing effects of the “New Media.” There was a consensus that there are positive and negative sides to New Media, and that the negatives include its use as a tool for the dissemination of radical ideologies and pornography. Indonesian speakers tended to embrace New Media because it promotes democratic change and freedom of expression. WML speakers expressed concern about it for exactly the same reason.

The disconnect between Saudi and Indonesian perspectives was apparent throughout the conference.  An editorial in the December issue of MWL Journal, distributed at the conference, summarized the Saudi position:

If the changing dynamics of media are not understood in its proper perspectives and an effort is not made to discipline the youth, it can create havoc in the society, as is being witnessed in many places.

Indonesian Vice-president Boediono opened the conference with a speech in which he stated:

The emergence of social networking media has created  new social institutions, in the forms of new social networks that bypass social borders and strata, creating virtual horizontal relationships. This New Media also helps to strengthen civil society and allows everyone access to it, greater freedom of expression and freedom of speech, including direct and open criticism of the Government.

Governments that have not been willing to allow greater democratic   participation and failed to respond adequately and in a timely manner to democratic voices have found themselves in difficulties or even been forced out of power by popular movements, the people’s power. Government’s control over media, is no longer effective. Gadgets, small yet very high-tech devices that can provide any information at any time, are easily available everywhere. Information has become a public domain. This is the new reality that we all have to adjust to and live with.

Social networking media can produce enormous benefits for the society. This is the experience in this country. The practice of democracy in Indonesia has been enriched by the development of social networking media.

He also called on Muslim religious authorities to issue “contextual fatwa (legal opinions)” to counter the influence of Internet based extremism. In Indonesian Muslim discourse “contextual” refers to a mode of legal reasoning that uses general principles abstracted from sacred texts to arrive at solutions to contemporary problems. This discursive style is an anathema to Saudi scholars who insist on literal readings. These are very different understandings of Shari’ah. The conflict between these positions was evident throughout the conference.

MWL General Secretary At-Turki

MWL General Secretary At-Turki

Presentations by General Secretary Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen At-Turki and other MWL speakers reiterated the themes of the MWL Journal editorial. They emphasized the dangers that global news and entertainment media pose to “Islam and the Muslims.” They stressed the need for government to government cooperation in efforts to establish “Muslim” alternatives to both existing Old Media and New Media. One speaker proposed creating a “Muslim” alternative to Facebook. Several speakers were critical of (unnamed) individuals who have declared the Internet to be haram (forbidden). They stressed the point that technology is morally neutral and should be used to promote Islamic values. Several presentations focused on the importance of satellite television as a communications medium. They indicated that television is the preferred medium because it can be used to deliver standardized content in multiple languages.

In their formal presentations WML delegates tended to speak of “Islam,” “The Muslim Community” and “The West” in monolithic ways. There were frequent references to “genuine” and Islamic teachings and the need to “correct” deviant tendencies. These statements reflect WML’s concerns with establishing Wahhabi orthodoxy and combatting other forms of Islam, especially Sufism and the Shiah.  “The West” was described as being anti-Islamic and as a source of moral corruption. “Western media” were often mentioned as engaging in conspiracies to corrupt Muslim youth and ultimately to destroy Islam. In general, portrayals of the West were far more negative than those in WML English language publications.

WML delegates we interviewed seemed not to understand the dynamics of New Media. One spoke of establishing an on line international Muslim media clearing house complete with electronic versions of “authentic texts,” and encouraging young people to study Information Technology as strategies to counter “anti-Islamic forces and influences.”  He did not appear to grasp the point that New Media is user driven. One of the editors of MWL Journal stated that he used e-mail and that some of his children had Facebook pages but that he did not really understand it. Another expressed confidence that if they were given proper Muslim educations, young people would watch “Muslim” programs on satellite TV instead of the frivolous entertainment programing offered by conventional media.

Presentations by Indonesian delegates echoed Boediono’s embrace of the democratizing power of New Media.  Parni Hadi, one of the founding editors of the Indonesian Islamic daily Republika, spoke with great passion and idealism about the constructive role of the New Media. In his remarks he mentioned links between technology and democratization, pointing to the role New Media in the Arab Spring movements that led to the overthrown of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. He called for the development of a “Prophetic” journalistic ethos and practice  based on freedom of expression with “no oppression by whosoever, government and religious authorities as well as media owners.” He called on journalists to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad in efforts to promote “dignity, devotion, tolerance, mutual understanding, mutual respect and non-violence.” He was also critical of government attempts to control print, broadcast and on-line media.

In general Indonesian participants were far more open to changes wrought by the New Media than their Saudi counterparts. They tended to emphasize the opportunities rather than the dangers of the emergence of citizen journalism. They were less inclined to paint monochrome portraits of either “The West” or “Islam.” They also had a more expansive visions of “Muslim” media. In his address Professor  Azyumardi Azra, Dean of the Graduate School at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, called for a pluralistic understanding of Islam. He later observed that Muslim media can, and should be more than sermons and that there was nothing “un-Islamic” about media coverage of the Manchester United football team, a perennial favorite in Indonesia.

The Social Dimension – Exclusivism and Gender

International conferences are complex social events in which cultures sometimes collide. Gender was an especially divisive issue at this conference. Men and women mix freely at conferences sponsored by Indonesian Islamic Universities. There are always women on the program. Seating is gender mixed, women and men converse freely and join each other for meals and coffee breaks.

Saudi and other MWL organizers were clearly uneasy about these aspects of Indonesian Muslim intellectual and cultural practice. There were no women in MWL sponsored delegations. Of the approximately 200 Indonesians invited by the Ministry of Religion, at least half were female, but in deference to Saudi concerns, none were asked to make presentations. Gender issues were not addressed in any of the formal presentations. The Indonesian organizers did not compromise on gender integrated seating and meals. Saudi and other WML sponsored delegates did not, however, speak with Indonesian women when they could avoid it, much less join them for coffee or lunch.

Inayah Rohmaniyah Occupying the Podium

Many Indonesians, men as well as women, found the absence of women from the program to be unprofessional and insulting. When Labibah Zain of Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University raised the issue in a question and answer session, the Saudi response was that the question could not be answered. After the session ended, but with at least a hundred people still in the room, she and Inayah Rohmaniyah, Senior Lecture in the Department Quranic Exegesis and Hadith Studies at the same Islamic University “occupied” the podium to which they and other female scholars had been denied access.  The Saudi English language Arab News mentioned her “protest” but described her only as a blogger and social activist.  It did not mention the act of symbolic resistance that followed the non response to her question.

Final Thoughts – New Media, Media Events and the World Muslim League

The Muslim World League describes itself as a non-governmental organization. While this is technically correct, it functions as a public diplomacy arm of the Saudi Arabian State. Its publications depict the Saudi State, the king and the Saudi religious scholars as patrons and defenders of Islam and denounce their opponents.  It supports the spread of the Saudi version of Islam by funding schools, mosques and media outlets in many countries. It sponsors international conferences that usually unanimously endorse directives from the Saudi religious establishment. These conferences are as much media events, promoting Saudi claims to leadership of the global Muslim community, as they are forums for intellectual discussion and debate.  The 2nd International Conference on Islamic Media was intended to further this agenda and to formulate strategies to control opposing voices in the New Media. The conference approved a resolution establishing a “code of honor” for Muslim journalists and media organizations emphasizing their responsibility:

…… to affirm a belief in the moral principles and values of Islam, to safeguard the Islamic identity from the negative effects of globalization and westernization and to ensure freedom that is responsible and disciplined by Shari’ah guidelines; confront atheism and all other anti-Islam tendencies that spread hatred against Islam and Muslims.

It was, however, clear that the Indonesian Muslim establishment, including the Ministry of Religion and the Islamic University system and many Indonesian Muslim intellectuals do not share the Saudi desire to control either the Old or the New Media or to counter the role of New Media in democratic change. They clearly do not share Saudi perspectives on gender. WML publications often include photos of conferences in which no women appear. There were no such “photo ops” at this conference. One account of the conference, including quotations from Parni Hadi’s address, can already be found by searching 2nd International Conference on Islamic Media on Facebook. There will, no doubt, be others.


* Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University. Inayah Rohmaniyah is Senior Lecturer of Tafsir and Hadith at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University.