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Alumni & Voices

Dr. James Hoesterey

Now an assistant professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Jim explains that one of his main goals in dissecting Aa Gym’s influence was to examine the “anxieties and aspirations” of middle-class Muslims in Indonesia.

Among the Believers

Cultural anthropologist James Hoesterey found himself in a delicate position in January 2006.

He was traveling by car from Bandung to Jakarta alongside Kyai Haji Abdullah Gymnastiar, famed Islamic selfhelp guru. At the height of his popularity, the Indonesian cleric known as Aa Gym had preached to crowds of some 20,000 and owned more than 20 companies, exuding considerable influence through televised sermons and pop-psychology seminars. (The term “Aa” denotes “elder brother” in Sundanese.) The American scholar had been researching this phenomenon since 2005—becoming such a steady presence that the cleric often joked they had become a rhyming pair, “Aa Gym” (hard g) and “Aa Jim.”

On this particular road trip, however, Aa Gym was buffeted by one of the most tumultuous periods of his life. He faced a public backlash following the sensational revelation that he had secretly married again. The episode revived a long-standing debate over polygamy in Indonesia. The cleric turned to Jim and popped a question. Did the American scholar think he could make a comeback? The answer was discreet. “Who am I to predict anything? Perhaps only God knows our fate,” the Fulbright-Hays grantee replied.

Jim’s knack for diplomacy kept the channels of communication open. He continued his research periodically through August 2014, and went on to write Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity and a Self-help Guru, contributing to the burgeoning study of the social and political dynamics of contemporary Islam. The book eschews harsh judgments in favor of detailed descriptions. Now an assistant professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Jim explains that one of his main goals in dissecting Aa Gym’s influence was to examine the “anxieties and aspirations” of middle-class Muslims in Indonesia.

Decades ago, an anthropologist was expected to hang his hat in a remote village and report from the hinterlands. Those days are over. As Jim’s work shows, there is also much to be learned in the towns and the cities. “The anthropologists should not just allow the political scientists to study the political and religious elite,” says the 42-year-old scholar. Pulling strands from the various fields of media studies, pop culture, and sociology, Rebranding Islam also has a hybrid texture

“Students can definitely learn a lot from this powerful book, not only in Indonesia but also in [other parts of ] Asia,” says Dadi Darmadi, senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) in Jakarta. The book shows “how the media is extremely influential in shaping the face of a major religion, even before the advent of social media as we know it today,” he adds. It already figures on assigned reading lists at the University of Michigan and Northern Illinois University, among others.

Rather than produce a dry academic tome, Jim sought to incorporate techniques of narrative nonfiction. He wanted to make the book accessible to undergraduates enrolled in courses like Introduction to Islam. But he also aimed for a style that might appeal to his mother’s book club, along with other general readers. For example, his main character is catapulted from “the proud moments of national celebrity to the dark and difficult days of public humiliation.” In the last pages, he also traces Aa Gym’s rebound in a more conservative direction—a phenomenon that has produced sharply mixed reactions in Indonesia.

Rather than posit Islam as a force remote from the West, Jim highlights the links. He points out that Aa Gym’s personal reading list included American best sellers like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Emotional Intelligence, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Aa Gym’s seminars combined Western pop psychology and corporate models of human resource training. As for dispelling stereotypes, many Indonesians’ dismay (or in some cases, revulsion) at the cleric’s second marriage should tip off American readers that Muslims around the world do not uniformly approve of polygamy.

Long intrigued by psychology, Jim believes that humans have many things in common, no matter what their religion or geographical locale. Raised in Dallas, Texas, he initially yearned to become a child psychologist. After volunteering to work at a summer camp for children with muscular dystrophy, he learned that one of his former high school teachers was organizing a group trip to Papua. He jumped at the chance to go.

He was awed by the scenery, and even more overwhelmed by his conversations with the Dani people who worked as porters for the group. (One of them spoke Indonesian, making translated conversations a bit easier.) One porter asked Jim and his friends about something strange they had heard from other travelers. Was it true that foreigners sent their parents away when they became old? The Americans figured out that the Dani were referring to nursing homes for the elderly, and confirmed that this did happen in some cases. As Jim recalls, the man’s eyes filled with tears as he responded, “How could you do that to your parents?”

Thus began Jim’s quest to learn more about cross-cultural expressions of emotion. Noting the difficulties in obtaining a research permit to return to Papua, he switched his focus to the Minangkabau people in West Sumatra province. For his master’s thesis, he studied the role of rindu, a certain longing for home typical of young men who had followed tradition in leaving their province and seeking business or study opportunities elsewhere in Indonesia.

Later, a timely profile of Aa Gym in the New York Times provided a spark for his PhD work. Jim saw a way to combine his fascination with anthropology, psychology, religion, and marketing. But he knew that access would be essential. Polite, respectful, and displaying a sincere interest in learning more about Islam, he swiftly ensconced himself in the cleric’s devout entourage in Bandung.

Some Indonesians were startled by this feat. Hermawan Kartajaya, founder and chairman of the Jakarta-based marketing consultancy MarkPlus, Inc., met Jim while arranging a book deal and talk show with the cleric. He could hardly believe that this strapping American from Texas could inhabit Aa Gym’s world. “He explained the true, deep meaning of Alhamdulillah,” attests Hermawan, a Catholic raised in Surabaya. While Jim did not convert to Islam, he studied the precepts and rituals of the religion. Hermawan ended up hiring Jim to help his staff weave ethnographic concepts into their marketing methodology. He was also recruited to speak at several marketing seminars in May 2007, mixing Indonesian, Sundanese, and various jokes in his speeches.

In fact, Jim was no stranger to hands-on marketing exercises. While waiting for acceptance into a PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he supported himself with marketing gigs for the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. His salary helped subsidize his return trips to Lake Maninjau, where he practiced his Indonesian and learned more about Minangkabau culture.

Now he is pursuing a fresh topic that combines marketing and diplomacy. In 2015, Jim obtained a post-doctoral US Fulbright Scholar grant to do research on various efforts by the Indonesian government and local Islamic groups to promote the country as a hub of “moderate” Islam and a successful Muslim-majority democracy. The research looks at the proliferation of conflicting definitions of “moderate,” as used by such groups as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and Muhammadiyah, as well as the Indonesian ministries of foreign affairs and religion. It also looks at how Islamic ethics and ideals play a role in public diplomacy. For example, Jim observed a human resources training seminar to propagate the NU concept of “Islam Nusantara.”

At this stage, Jim concedes that such efforts probably won’t change the minds of some deeply conservative figures in the Middle East. But the Indonesian government-backed recognition of “moderate” Islam may yield significant domestic dividends, he argues. “I see a tremendous value,” he says, pointing to the pride that comes from contributing a vision to the world.

In July 2017, he shared his initial findings with academic colleagues at a Jakarta seminar. The feedback was encouraging. Known as a lively speaker, Jim also received kudos for the relevance of his research topic. His paper was deemed “both interesting and timely in the age of terror on the one hand, and Islamophobia on the other hand,” says Muhamad Ali, the director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies program at the University of California at Riverside. It is necessary to “explain how and why the elite constructed an idea and implemented a program they think crucial for the nation.”

As Jim continues to explore Islam in Indonesia, he draws deep nourishment from his friendships. “Fulbright is the best program of public diplomacy ever created in the United States,” he maintains. “It gives that chance for connection, people-to-people. If I see any hope in global diplomacy, it’s not just through diplomats in expensive hotel rooms—it’s through Americans doing projects in the villages and Americans trying to understand arts and culture. This is a necessary part of a broader diplomatic effort.”

Last Updated: Apr 15, 2019 @ 2:43 pm

This profile originally appeared in the Ripple Effect: How Fulbright Alumni Are Making Their Mark On The World (pages 21-25) published in 2017 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of AMINEF and the 65th anniversary of Fulbright in Indonesia.

Author: Margot Cohen

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