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Islamic media and the slow dance to death

Partisan media publications are often quick to fail in Muslim regions due to consistently poor management

The Jakarta Post
Saturday, October 2, 2004

By Santi W. E. Soekanto

"Kiss him simply and sexily. Touch his eyes, cheek, forehead, neck and forearm ... Use your tongue, but use your imagination. Gently press your lips against his skin ... lightly bite him on his back, and watch him laugh for feeling ticklish. Do plenty of those for foreplay and after-play."

No, that steamy passage has not been taken from the Cosmopolitan whose newest Indonesian edition discusses the agony of having to decide whether to capture one's lovemaking on camera. Instead, it comes from an article in the recent edition of Nikah (Marriage) Islamic magazine that expounded how Prophet Muhammad enjoined husbands and wives to beautify their union with kisses and romantic words.

No pictures of scantily clad men or women accompany the story. In fact, not a single picture of living beings (except for flowers and plants) is found in the magazine as it is published by a Salafy Muslim group who guard against any impurity in the Islamic teaching by banning images of people or animals.

The magazine is fairly new, but it adds zing to the vista of Islamic print media in Indonesia, which somehow is often deemed to be too insignificant for the mainstream media audience to bother with. The graves of Islamic publications are many, ironically, given that Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, because they do not have the staying power of their "non-Islamic" counterparts.

Besides publications for Muslim women such as Ummi, Amanah, Noor, Alia, Paras and the now-defunct Aisya, readers of non-partisan media such as The Jakarta Post, are usually hard put to remember the names of Islamic publications. When pressed, some can probably recall the politically inclined media such as Panjimas, Media Dakwah, Sabili, Ummat and Hidayatullah but nothing else. Too many Islamic publications have died a slow and painful death after being plagued with the same problem: Poor management.

Panjimas, for instance, was probably the most prominent Islamic magazine in the contemporary history of Indonesia that finally collapsed after a series of management changes. Short for Panji Masyarakat, it was established by the late Buya Hamka, a charismatic scholar and former chairman of Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) who went to jail under Sukarno's administration and caused more than a ripple when he decreed that it was haram (Arabic word meaning "forbidden") for Muslims to take part in Christmas celebrations.

Hamka passed away in 1981 and his son M. Rusydi Hamka took over the magazine that had given birth to famous writers such as Azyumardi Azra, Komarudin Hidayat and Bachtiar Effendy. Under the leadership of Uni Zulfiati Lubis and funded by Soeharto's former finance minister Fuad Bawazier, it changed from a publication geared for dakwah (religious proselytizing) purposes to a news magazine.

Following a hiatus, it emerged as a journal of thoughts and culture under the leadership of former Tempo journalist, Syubah Asa. Following an unresolved business dispute with its backer, the magazine simply stopped running last year.

Sabili is now considered the largest Islamic publication in Indonesia. Established without the official license of Soeharto's administration by a group of dakwah activists using pen names, the magazine displayed the journalists' sympathy for the Afghan and Palestinian peoples' cause. Translated articles from Middle Eastern publications such as Al-Mujtama in Kuwait dominated Sabili for a short while, before it stopped running and was replaced by other short-lived publications, Intilaq and Ishlah.

Sabili was revived in 1998 with the funding of several Muslim businessmen. It played the euphoria of reformasi to the hilt, pushing forward topics that would in the past have earned it a quick death. These include reports about what the magazine believed to be aggressive Christian proselytizing, and the Tanjung Priok and Lampung massacres in 1984 and 1986.

Other Islamic publications include Hidayatullah, which was established in 1988 by the Hidayatullah pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in East Kalimantan and currently has a circulation of over 53,000. There was also Media Dakwah, born in 1968 and an "ideological sister" of Masyumi's Harian Abadi which Soeharto killed during the Malari student protests in 1974. Following a long and difficult financial existence, Media Dakwah died last year.

When Soeharto decided to cozy up to the Indonesian Muslims at the latter stage of his ruling in the early 1990s, a marriage between the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectual (ICMI), Republika daily and Mizan publishing house, produced Ummat magazine. The magazine died shortly after Soeharto's removal.

A logical question to ask is this: If the Islamic publications are run by people earnestly seeking divine rewards through furthering the words of Islam, why do so many of them fail and die? In all probability, many of the Islamic media managers are beset by what they think is a dilemma between real business practices and the Islamic way of doing business. As if the two are mutually exclusive.

Some unsympathetic people would lay the blame on the fact that the Islamic media are partisan and therefore appeal only to a limited group of readers. What the Islamic media managers claim to be their captive market is often that -- readers who are bound and captive by ideological loyalty. Muslim Group A does not usually read the publications of Muslim Group B.

But the label of partisan media is certainly debatable, because what media is completely non-partisan? The mainstream media, from Kompas and its sister publications to Tempo and Gatra have their own partisanship and inclination -- politically and financially.

Business-wise, many Islamic publications leave a lot to be desired. The death of one more Islamic publication is a great loss to the society.

Partisan media need to develop good management practices. Long gone is the era where people believe that the dakwah mission and profitability are mutually exclusive. Remember the recent growth of the sharia banks? They came about because the conventional bank owners were intelligent enough to realize there is a market for the sharia banks that eventually mean another boost to their own profitability.

Asia Institute