Communiqué: Holy Rollers

May 23, 2011
Communiqué: Holy Rollers
Majelis Mawlid motorcade in Indonesia

Exploring the Formation of Non-Violent Islam on Wheels

By Kate Hoagland – Communiqué: Spring 2011, Volume 8

On a hot, bustling evening in southern Jakarta, several hundred young, working-class Muslims in traditional white, rounded caps and long-sleeved shirts riding motorcycles stopped traffic. Their numbers swelled to over 500 as they traveled through a main thoroughfare in Indonesia’s capital city.

Upon reaching a blocked off street, the riders joined an eagerly awaiting congregation of over 15 thousand young followers for a weekly celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Late into the evening, participants praised Allah amidst a rock concert-like back drop complete with a stage, six digital projectors flashing colorful images, and speakers blasting holy music.

“It was huge and astonishing. By making other people immobile, they are making themselves mobile,” explained Aryo Danusiri, a renowned Indonesian filmmaker and Harvard doctoral candidate in anthropology, who witnessed this multimedia motorcade event in the summer of 2009.

These weekly celebrations are part of an emerging religious movement of voluntary study groups, called Majelis Mawlid, that have continued to gain popularity since 2000. Majelis Mawlid commonly start with a dramatic traffic-halting motorcade that converges on a much larger congregation of followers celebrating on a blocked off street. Through a research grant from the Center’s HKS Indonesia Program, Danusiri explored the Majelis Mawlid movement’s paradoxes and implications for democracy as part of his dissertation work which will culminate in a feature-length documentary.

The Continuum Between the Profane and the Sacred
As Danusiri explains, Majelis Mawlid is made up of young, working-class urban males that follow the more traditionalist sect of Islam. Yet, most traditionalists are typically middle or upper class and reside in rural areas. Opting for urban Jakarta, the movement is repurposing the city’s secular landscape of malls, office buildings, and public streets into holy areas. “I was interested in the continuum between what is profane and sacred, and how Majelis Mawlid is reconstituting their religion in urban spaces,” said Danusiri.

By promoting peaceful ideas and broadcasting three-story multimedia images of nonviolent Islam, the movement is literally fighting images with images – countering peaceful images against the predominantly violent images of Islam that pervade the West.

“But Majelis Mawlid is conducting its congregations in a very aggressive way,” says Danusiri. “By occupying the streets, they are really making people angry.” Experts estimate that such events cost an annual $3.5 billion in wasted productivity and fuel costs (TIME Magazine, 2009).

Experimenting as a Nation
Blocking traffic is not a new phenomenon for Indonesia: during the election season, many political groups have brought the city’s buses and cars to a halt with parades and rallies both now and during the country’s New Order (1966–1998) periods. Danusiri argues that the Majelis Mawlid movement is indicative of the types of experimentation going on in Indonesia’s fledgling democracy, whereby groups across sectors are taking inspiration from each other and adapting ideas to promote visibility and encourage change.

“Given the recent dramatic surge of public mobilization via new media across much of the Muslim world, Aryo Danusiri’s project promises to open a new and important window into the life and vision of a global Islamic public sphere,” said Professor Mary Steedly, director of Undergraduate Studies and professor of the Social Anthropology Program at Harvard University.