IT’S a make or break moment for Indonesian high schooler Puteri Ara and her hijab-clad friends as they rap about religious tolerance to a cheering TV studio audience. It’s all up to the judges on Ramazan reality television — a ratings bonanza watched by millions across the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation during the month-long fasting celebration. “Muslims who are fasting have to be ready to stand with those who don’t fast,” belts out 16-year-old Ara. “This is my country. It’s built upon different religions but we’re united in peace.”
Part talent show and part sermon, the show Syiar Anak Negeri (The Country’s Children Preach) is one of a string of similar programmes played during Ramazan that feature kids as young as three competing for TV stardom. They compete for prizes including tickets to Makkah, cash of up to 100 million Rupiah (about $7,200) and university scholarships. Ara’s band has worked tirelessly on a set that meshes rap with beatbox and nasheed — vocal music sung a cappella or backed by percussion instruments. A celebrity-studded panel of judges, which also includes members of the religious affairs ministry and Indonesia’s top Muslim cleric body, decides who goes on to the next round.
The show featuring Ara’s group was the brainchild of producer Ferdi Setiawan, who wanted to help keep young people away from the clutches of drinking, drugs — and radicalism. “Through this programme we’re hoping they’ll develop a positive spirit and values,” Setiawan said of the participants. “And we’re sure that when they return to their respective hometowns they’ll become preachers at school, their neighbourhood or at least at home.” TV producers have tapped a growing demand for religion-inspired shows and marketed them to huge audiences during Ramazan, pushing once-dominant soap operas and prank TV shows to the sidelines. But the renewed focus on religion in Indonesia has also opened the door to firebrand clerics who have taken to the airwaves to preach intolerance towards women, minority groups and non-Muslims.
They’re not welcome on shows like The Country’s Children Preach, however, and backers say the upbeat programmes could help push back against hardliners. “This is a solution to counteract radicalism and increase tolerance,” said Nanang Syaikhu, a lecturer in the communications department at Jakarta’s State Islamic University.
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2018