Exploring the relationship between social media and visual dakwah (Islamic propagation) in Indonesia today, Hew Wai Weng, a fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, gave a presentation at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum on 30th August 2017, focusing on the case of the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia-affiliated Chinese-Indonesian Islamic preacher Felix Siauw who has a big number of followers (one of the highest among Muslim preachers) on social media.
Hew showed how Felix Siauw has blended visual creativities with conservative messages of Islam in a way that is powerful in shaping popular discourse on Islamic piety, especially among the youth. His research helps us to rethink contemporary changing character of Indonesian Islam and popular Islamic politics.
Introducing the concept of what he calls “sensational Islamism” in this propagation style, Hew is inspired by the idea of sensational form and aesthetics of persuasion from anthropologist Birgit Meyer. Based on online research, offline participation, and face-to-face interview with Felix Siauw and his dakwah team members, he highlighted three points: first, the intersection between online and offline activities; second, the multiple forms of dakwah expression both online and offline dakwah; and third, the politics and poetics of dakwah.
Unlike other famous Muslim preachers, Felix Siauw became prominent after being active on social media and only then was given preaching spaces in TV. He often emphasized his conversion journey from Chinese Catholic to Muslim after learning from his friends in 2002, while a student at the Institut Pertanian Bogor, a stronghold for Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Siauw uses social media from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp to Youtube with wisher aesthetics and casual language (bahasa gaul). He gets the attention of the Muslim public with his Chinese ethnic background, his status as a muallaf (convert), and his affiliation with the now-banned HTI. In the words of Weng, Felix Siaw’s preaching is “fun yet radical, colorful but conservative, down-to-earth but hardliner, and interactive yet dogmatic.”
Hew showed that beautifications of dakwah in the form of youth-engaging lectures, colorful images and attractive—and sometimes ‘heroic’—videos play a crucial role in Felix Siauw’s preaching. Considering a combination of his experience as marketing manager in a chemical company, his knowledge on information technology, and his youthful hobbies of internet gaming, making animation, traveling and photography, Felix Siauw can be very successful as a young preacher, despite not having ‘proper’ Islamic studies background. Today, he has more than 4 million followers on Facebook, 2 million on Twitter, and 1 million on Instagram, making him as one of leading preachers and social media influencers in Indonesia.
Online and offline dakwah mutually complement and constitute each other. Online discussion will also lead to offline activities which will be talked about on social media. For Felix Siauw, virality matters very much. His awareness on this helps maintain his followers’ commitment to attend his lecture, intensive religious classes, and halaqah (small religious study club). He also had fun activities with his followers like hangout, meet up, rihlah (excursion), festival, talk show, and so on. He is part of a massive network of groups who share similar contents. He is also running various businesses such as Hijab Alila (Islamic fashion brand) and Alfatih Press (publishing house) to promote his dakwah activities. The Hijab Alila team once held Festival Sahabat Taat (Faithful Friend Festival) attended by thousands of young female Muslims on November 5th, 2016, with instagramable displays.
Felix Siauw is known to be cool preacher (ustad gaul), seen as friendly and down-to-earth. He has long been very active on Twitter but since 2013 he has become more active on Instagram. He notices different demographics of social media users. He is aware of the difference between Twitter, which is text-based and tough, and Instagram, which is image-based and softer.
Felix Sauw has written numerous books. Khilafah Remake, one of his ideological books, with dark color brings up his ideological commitment to establish an Islamic state or khilafah as promoted by HTI. To promote his latest book, The Art of Dakwah, Felix Siauw has the video “like and share syar’i” which aims at shariatization of social media. In this book, he writes about why social media is so important in dakwah and builds normalization of being “radical” and using the term “kafir” (infidel) for non-Muslims.
Some of Felix Siauw’s other books are less ideological in conveying Islamic massages like Udah Putusin Aja! (Break Up Your Sweetie!), adapted to a TV reality show, and Ayo Berhijab (Let’s Use Veil!) with fun purple color. Previously, Felix Siauw shared a series of pictures of trip in Belitung Island in which some female Muslims with their “hijab syar’i” swimming in the sea. He wanted to show that young female Muslims can have fun and at the same time follow a strict Islamic ruling.
Felix Siauw also strongly criticized the then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok who he deems as having insulted Islam. He is one of social media influencers who encouraged Muslim youth to join the Aksi Bela Islam calling for the imprisonment of Ahok.
During the Q&A session, a participant asked about Felix Siauw’s current affiliation to HTI. Hew explained that Felix Siauw has blurred affiliation to HTI structurally, but this can instead benefit him as he can minimize confrontation with the public, especially now that HTI has been disbanded. However, despite the fact that HTI has been disbanded and some of his preaching events were eventually forced to be cancelled, he is still largely free to preach and give speeches, particularly on social media.