“In the old days, as far as you could see the rice fields, that area was all ‘NU [Nahdlatul Ulama] territory’. But now, along with the shrinking rice fields, the only ones who study and worship in NU style are in the outlying areas, or those that are well established and want to preserve the memories of their home villages. Meanwhile, most workers follow the Salafi style in Quran studies and worship.”
This hypothesis of one of our fellow researchers clearly needs to be tested, but recent research findings by Rumah KitaB that women laborers in Karawang and Bekasi in West Java are very active in Salafi pengajian (religious study groups) seem to confirm this statement. NU is Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, known for its moderate teachings and practices, while Salafi is known for a more rigid understanding of Islam.
Three Rumah KitaB researchers have been observing industrial areas since January, taking the daily pulse of women working in local large factories. They observed how these women workers or former workers defined their lives: the effect of the industrial era and industrial area on their socioeconomic life and their existence as women; and whether any sense of restriction is caused by increasingly rigid religious views, or by attitudes that are more intolerant of women. The researchers are still exploring the answers, but there are some intriguing indications.
One researcher reported that almost all the religious study groups attended by the women workers were “kajian sunnah Salafi”. This refers to study groups following the Salafi belief that the only authentic Islamic teachings are those derived from the Salafi era — the time closest to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. We therefore refer to them as fundamentalists.
On Mondays through Sundays, dozens of these kajian sunnah are found in mosques in housing complexes and in company mosques. In the areas studied, the busiest time for these sessions is Saturday, when 17 groups meet in one industrial area.
Our researchers collect posters of the sessions which listed the topics under study. Most discuss tauhid, the principles of strict monotheism. Various terms translate these principles considered as central to pure tauhid. Phrases such as “fear of bid’ah” or heretical practices and rituals, “never be a musyrik” or someone who worships anything other than God, or “must use a clear reference”, signal their utmost caution and rigidity in practicing Islam. As Salafis, they clearly believe the most correct religious teachings are the ones they consider most authentic. And this is where their intolerance shows.
Their sessions are deadly serious; with almost no joking around, unlike scenes in women’s religious study groups often shown on television, which are full of joyous laughter, typical of cultural religious study sessions in NU circles.
Another theme of the Salafi study groups relates to “correct” practices of daily worship: the right way to perform ablutions, the right way to pray, to dress, to raise a family, and so on. Naturally, it is studies on women that are presented most often, including the obligation to wear a full body covering (jilbab syar’i) plus hijab.
Through their mobile phones, the women can access and select various study themes. And in every study activity, they diligently pay attention, take notes, and ask questions on slips of paper.
So why is the NU style of study and worship no longer suitable for the urban working class in these former NU strongholds? Why has the NU model of pengajian been pushed into the outlying areas? The working class seems very keen on the sunna style of study because it gives them definite answers: lawful or unlawful, you may do this, you must not do that.
Their lives as workers follow the rhythm of working life, measured in minutes and hours. This “instant” type of study seems to fit with their rhythm as urban dwellers with drained energy. They are only interested in definite answers and no longer have time to follow the NU model of study, which provides alternatives. As newcomers from villages, not all of whom are familiar with the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) tradition, they are uninterested in a traditional model of study that discusses the classical texts word by word. They need answers directly relevant to their current lives as city dwellers who need something to hold onto in a life full of gray areas.
This situation is clearly different from when they lived in the villages, where life is regulated by the farming seasons, the rhythms of the five daily prayers, and participation in pengajian as a customary communal activity.
Historically, the NU founders aimed to maintain the traditions upheld by the rural agrarian poor. But these poor people have now moved to the cities, following the loss of their rice fields and economic resources in the villages. They have become the urban poor who no longer depend on agriculture but instead on industry.
Has this change been captured not by NU but instead by proponents of the Salafi? Some Salafi consider politics as bid’ah (heresy); consequently workers are forbidden to rally even for their own rights and interests. And this is perhaps why business owners cultivate them, or at least tolerate them.
The hardships faced by poor families and women workers in urban areas mean they seek a way out to improve their lives. The working class struggle cannot be constantly denied in the name of maintaining stability. And just like in the villages when the poor had to face landlords or high prices of production inputs, NU should be present among the urban working class and defend them when they face disadvantageous labor regulations.
The shift of the interest of many workers, especially women, to Salafi-style pengajian should not be seen as a simple individual preference of any available stream of Islam; since the nature of Salafi teachings, which emphasize the superiority of their group and their sense of being the most authentic in practicing Islam, is the root of intolerant religious attitudes.
And everyone knows that intolerance never leads to anything good in the life of a pluralistic society like Indonesia’s.
Expert on Islam and gender; director of Rumah Kita Bersama (Rumah KitaB), research center on gender and marginalized groups. The following is based on the writer’s article in rumahkitab.com.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.