Wednesday Forum: Shaming the State; Piety, Pornography, and the Politics of Visual Culture in Indonesia


This presentation examines the role of visual culture in the constitution – and contestation – of public piety during Indonesia’s controversial anti-pornography campaign. Building on Hirschkind’s concept of the “pious sensorium,” the paper describes how seeing itself can be an ethical act. Inspired by al-Ghazzali’s notion of the “fornication of the eye,” celebrity televangelist Abdullah Gymnastiar preached that those who cannot control their sexual gaze eventually tarnish their hearts and lose their sense of shame. Gymnastiar leveraged his public pulpit to discipline state officials, summoning them to publicly support legislation to ban Playboy magazine. On the other hand, opponents of the anti-pornography bill deployed visual media to satirize what they viewed as inauthentic displays of piety by Islamist politicians and public icons. By attending to the diverse ways in which Indonesians mobilize media, this paper argues that an analysis of visual culture in post-authoritarian Indonesia provides unique insights into political Islam that enrich, nuance, and at times contradict the current scholarly focus on electoral politics and Islamist institutions.

James Hoesterey is Assistant Professor on Department of Religion, Emory University, and cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on popular culture, religious authority, and political Islam. His first book explores post-Islamist politics in Indonesia through the story of the rise and fall of Indonesia’s celebrity televangelist Aa Gym, Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-help Guru (2016). Hoesterey has also published on Islamic cinema and has served as anthropological consultant for documentary films broadcast worldwide on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and the BBC.



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