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Morality on the Digital Edge: Social Media Usage and Religious Authority among Indonesian Muslim School Girls

  April 26th 2021

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Across the Muslim world, the rise of new media and in particular, the internet, is credited with having allowed for a greater number and variety of participants in debates about Islamic normativity. Furthermore, in the urban Indonesian context, the smartphone has become a central fixture of the social landscape. The ubiquity of digital technology has been heralded by some scholars and social commentators as a great democratizing force and an opportunity or an important catalyst for social change. Concerning this issue, Claire-Marie Hefner researched two schools for this study, Madrasah Mu'allimaat Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and Pesantren Krapyak Ali Maksum, in which she offers an analysis of digital literacy, religious authority, and morality in two Indonesian Islamic boarding schools for girls. Hefner argues that these young women occupy a "digital double edge" regarding their limited access to the digital world offers cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial opportunities while engagement with the morally murky space of the internet. On March 17, 2021, both ICRS and CRCS proudly welcomed Dr. Claire-Marie Hefner as speaker in the Wednesday Forum. Hefner is a cultural anthropologist and postdoctoral scholar of Islamic studies, in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. She is currently developing her book manuscript, Achieving Islam: Women, Piety and Moral Play in Indonesian Muslim Boarding Schools, an ethnographic study of moral learning and women's achievement in Yogyakarta.

Hefner began her presentation by arguing that within the study of Islam and new media, greater attention to everyday decision-making surrounding what to post, "like”, and share reveals new spaces where young Muslim women lay subtle claim to religious authority as they engage and interpret alternative messages about Islam and gender that they encounter online. Moreover, she explained that within the study of Islam, internet access is credited with having allowed for a greater number and range of participants in debates about proper religious forms and practices across the Ummat, a process that Dale F. Eichelman and Jon W. Anderson have referred to as the fragmenting of religious authority (New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Indiana University Press. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003). Aligned with that, many Indonesian cultural observers, political officials, and religious leaders have raised concerns about the moral dangers of uncensored internet content and the addictive nature of social media consumption practices. 

However, it is interesting that Hefner chose two Islamic boarding schools in Yogyakarta as her research subjects. The two schools of her study are Madrasah Mu'allimaat Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and Pesantren Krapyak Ali Maksum. Both are urban-based Islamic boarding schools that cater to lower-middle and middle-class families, they each offer six-year programs from middle school through high school. Islamic boarding schools located in urban areas are less common than their rural counterparts but, of course, this is changing. Many Muslim boarding and day schools are now opening in cities and towns in response to the desire of urban middle-class families who are committed to educating their children in the economic sciences along with the national curriculum. The school's glossy informational brochures boast top-of-the-line facilities including language laboratories with rows of computers and libraries with internet access. In urban schools like this, computer and internet access are increasing requirements for modern institutions hoping to remain competitive as they serve middle-class Indonesian Muslim youth with aspirations for university education and white-collar careers. The background of Madrasah Mu'allimaat is Muhammadiyah, a modernist, reformist Muslim social welfare organization. Pesantren Krapyak is affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a traditionalist Muslim social welfare organization. These two Islamic organizations have different Islamic legal pedagogical and histological backgrounds, the former being modernist and the latter traditionalist. These two Islamic organizations were key players in Indonesia's independence and have long been seen as two pillars of Indonesian Islam. This has been changing with the emergence of prominent and influential conservative and radical organizations in the country.

Furthermore, Hefner argues that the rise in prominence of neo-Salafi and even radical Islamist groups online on the Indonesian political landscape, raises critical questions regarding shifts in forms of religious authority and the practice of Islam. Unfortunately, schools have been the front line of growing conservatism among young Muslim Indonesians reflecting the macro-level conservative turn in the broader political arena and society. In 2019, students of an Islamic boarding school took a picture with the Tawheed Flag identified with Hizbut Tahrir. The picture attracted much attention and criticism. Social media has become another arena where moral deliberations and contestations are taking place and being actively disputed. And while new Islamic preachers are working to shape the narrative about what is and isn’t proper Islam, traditional Islamic authorities are at times struggling to keep up an online presence.

On the other hand, Indonesian pesantren are mostly traditionally organized and located in rural settings, of course, set apart from cities and towns and often situated great distances from pupils’ friends and families. Access to the internet, cell phones, and social media in these schools is either limited or non-existent. Furthermore, many educators view digital technology as a powerful and necessary tool, but a dangerous one if handled incorrectly by the user. Even a Kyai or leader of an Islamic boarding school during new student orientation in 2019 said, "Mothers and fathers, a cellphone is like a knife, if students do not know how to use it properly, they just end up hurting themselves."  Thus, parents and teachers see pesantren as disciplinary tools, meant to protect students from the mortal danger of modern life. “Modern life” is most commonly identified as free socializing between boys and girls or pergaulan bebas, premarital sex, free-sex, and accessing drugs and alcohol. In recent years, the alluring glow of internet-capable cell phones, computers, and tablets have been added to the list of parental anxieties. Religious training is seen as the antidote, and parents think that if their children stay at home they will just play on their smartphone all day, but in pesantren, they will learn Islam properly and leave their smartphone behind. Hefner likes to call it a digital double edge. This term is found and proposed in three ways. First, Krapyak and Mualimaat students are viewed as on the edge because of the possibilities of their being drawn away from the ethical milia of the school and into the morally ambiguous nebulous space of the internet. Second, Hefner demonstrates how women are subject to a greater level of scrutiny and critique in their online posts than their male counterparts. Third, this access of young female students also puts them at risk of being drawn in by the messages of more conservative or even radical Muslim groups and new preachers whose messages populate the internet. 

Hefner finds that young women in these Indonesian Islamic boarding schools occupy a space on the digital edge. The term digital edge was originally used by Craig Watkins book entitled The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality to describe students' media literacy as well as their access to and use of digital technology. Studying the electronic media usage of lower-income black and Latino students in American high school in Texas, Watkin found that students' use of technology reflected their disadvantaged position as peripheral internet users. A result of students often owning out-of-date devices and having limited internet access. The study also revealed however that students employ remarkably innovative strategies in their consumption patterns. In her research, Hefner wants to borrow and reshape the term digital edge and apply it to this Indonesian context to highlight the contradictory contours of digital life among Indonesian Muslim school girls. On the one hand, the digital edge, in this case, refers to the peripheral nature of digital media in Islamic schools where internet access is often limited and subject to strict regulations. In Krapyak, unsupervised internet use is prohibited on school grounds and any gadgets including laptops, tablets, and cell phones are considered contraband and swiftly confiscated by school officials. Some young students felt this left them vulnerable to being hopelessly out of touch and left behind by the times or "ketinggalan zaman". On the other hand, the limited internet access that Mualimah granted their students gave them a digital edge over their modern or "kurang modern" in their words or uncool peers at Islamic schools where internet and computer access of any kind is typically not allowed or simply not available. Knowledge of and access to the internet in the Indonesian Muslim schools has emerged as an important status distinction or prestige and cosmopolitan style.

Moreover, according to Hefner, a closer look at daily life on school grounds demonstrates that Indonesian schools can become spaces for debates about morality and piety that often go beyond or against the grain of state rhetoric, state curriculum, or traditional religious leaders. She examines how these two schools and the broader Muslim social welfare organizations are dealing with such challenges. Young women students have their perspective on school policies and have developed creative strategies for evading, challenging, and circumventing school regulations as they playfully test the boundaries of their school's moral guidelines. Young women students are themselves creative consumers and producers in the digital world, not just blindly imbibing content but creating posts or making choices or kind of critiquing others in their online participations. These everyday decisions often reflect subtle shifts in the public norms of Islam in Indonesia as conservative preachers gain traction in the country. Hefner considers these processes as they fit into broader debates in Indonesia, about Islamic propriety in the digital world. At the level of young women students, Hefner found it is interesting how everyday decision making about what to post, like, and share can be a space for claiming religious authority as young women from these two institutions engage and interpret alternative messages about Islam.

Regarding these two schools' rules and guidelines about digital technology, at Mu'allimaat and Krapyak, girls are kept on exhausting schedules of classes, Islamic textual analysis, leadership training, etiquette lessons, and curricular activities that keep them preoccupied from before sunrise until well into the evening. A busy schedule is seen as an important disciplinary tool by administrators, teachers, and parents, one that keeps the student immersed in the ethical training of the school. During the regular school period at Mu'allimaat, MP3 players, personal cell phones, laptops, and other devices are expressly forbidden. At Krapyak, students' own devices are sent home with parents and guardians at the start of the semester. However, students are allowed shared access to the dorm cell phone. These restrictions about access to digital technology reflect the school's efforts to insulate students from the temptations of morally suspect, popular culture, and the possibility of dangerous distractions. As one Kyai warned parents in the incoming class in 2019, "If you send your child to school with a cell phone, the first time we catch her, we will send the phone back to you, the second time we catch her, we will return your child.”

So both in Krapyak and Mu'allimaat, moral instruction on the danger of digital media revolved closely around what the internet and cell phones might lead to, namely unsupervised encounters with the opposite sex. Dorm supervisors and administrators often assumed the worst when it came to the reason students brought phones to schools, that basically if a girl brings the phone to school she probably has a boyfriend. Dorm supervisors at Krapyak and Mu'allimaat carry out regular raids on students' dorm rooms to confiscate contraband electronic gadgets and school administrators have been known to sell off confiscated items and keep the money as a donation to the school. Regulation and stories like this illustrate how educators' and parents' concerns about digital media, stem from their perceived morally perilous and socially corrupt nature. At Mu'allimaat a central focus on the moral instruction around digital media was the idea that the internet is a virtual public space and is fraught with all the moral dangers associated with the actual public sphere, in which the girl student has to be careful to monitor their self-image and cautious about how much and what they reveal. Thus, Hefner sees that Mu'allimaat and Krapyak teachers and administrators stressed the importance of girls recognizing the public nature of social media. She highlights what anthropologist Carla Jones has called the spectacularity of women's online presence, their semiotic vulnerability that is uniquely gendered.

The tension surrounding young women's internet access illustrates the digital double edge of online practices for Muslim school girls. On one hand, many girls at Krapyak and Mu'allimaat draw great pleasure from sharing images of themselves with friends and followers online. Social media offers access to the community's knowledge and experience within and beyond the Islamic boarding school, they can be spaces of mutual support and religious efforts where girls share inspirational memes encouraging proper practice and modesty or reminding their peers of the rewards of religious piety. Social media networks can also offer a chance for moral Ludus or moral play. The testing and reshaping of the boundaries of moral behaviors involving the balance of the various demands of various social fields in which a person is embedded. This play can take place in young women's sartorial decision-making, in their social media posts that may push the boundaries of acceptable modest dress for a pesantren student, or in choices surrounding whether and what kinds of music to listen to. Social media posts also had a promise of becoming a source of income and notoriety for some young women. Many alumni go on to run successful catering and baking businesses out of their homes through social media. On the other hand, social media posts make young women observable in ways that open them up to the possibilities for overexposure and critique, or even social social media practices which may lead to haughtiness, arrogance, and being full of oneself. Therefore, messages about propriety online are not limited to the space of the boarding school. Concerns about inappropriate access to online content are commonly articulated by  political and religious figures. On the national news and social media, stories circulated widely about online predators, the dangers of hoaxes, and the ramifications of students being exposed to explicit materials like pornography that they aren't ready to deal with morally. 

In response to these concerns, the expansive Islamic self-help section of Indonesian bookstores has seen the emergence of advice books on how to navigate the internet in ways that do not conflict with the piety efforts. Books like Amalan Hangus Gara-Gara Status (Status Updates Undoes Good Deeds) may be seen also as portraying the double-edged nature of the digital world. It is not uncommon for students to bend the rules and find ways to access digital media, there were other ways that students aided each other in remembering the moral guidance of the pesantren. This shared moral mission fit with the broad socialization at the Islamic boarding schools which reflects the deeply influential Qur’anic injunction to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong. At both Mu'allimaat and Krapyak, students often warned each other of the danger of meeting up with boys conveyed through stories of young women who had fallen to that fate at other schools and how much shame being found out would bring to the school and the girl’s family. Their shared moral narratives became one of the many ways that girls kept each other in line and helped to remind their peers of the fact that their actions affected and reflected on not just themselves but the school and their families. In this sense, this ethical socialization involves care of the self, and the self-care learned and sustained collaboratively through a collective and performative commitment to peers, the schools, their respective Muslim social welfare organizations, and global ummat. The monitoring and moral support took other forms as well. On Facebook, for example, girls commonly policed their peers' clothing and self-presentation in posts. 

Hefner argues that these seemingly mundane actions can provide young women ways to express their religious authority through posts and comments to encourage better religious behavior and may also be subject to policing and supervision by their peers. The embodied expertise of digital natives coupled with a strong grounding in Islamic sciences leaves some young women from Islamic schools in the unique position of claiming religious authority over peers and at times even parents. However, according to Hefner, digital literacy is an area of instruction that schools like Mu'allimaat and Krapyak are still struggling to address, leaving less digitally savvy or more impressionable students at risk of being swept up in alternative messages about Islam. Broader discussion about the dangers of the internet is taking place at the same time that schools are facing new pressures to incorporate more digital media in their curriculum. Following the 2013 national curriculum and to carry out more student-centered activities, teachers are increasingly asking students to search for information on their own and present on key subjects in class rather than the prescriptive pedagogy that has long characterized Indonesian education. The problem is that most of the schools in general in the Indonesian context also have limited media literacy guidelines for their students. So the issue of digital literacy among Indonesian youth extends to the realm of religious authority because according to a survey in 2016 by the Indonesian internet service provider association, 81 percent of teens in Indonesia use social media for religious advice. Thus for a religious school like Mu'allimaat and Krapyak, these changes pose a potential problem for the future of the broader Muhammadiyah and NU respectively, while much of the information online does not come from scholars from both organizations. Social media activists have made clear efforts to warn of these issues as they relate to losing young future membership. 

Finally, Hefner argues that this development should be taken into consideration in light of the rise of media savvy, neo-Salafi, Islamist preachers, and movements in the country. The development of digital media in the Muslim world did not negate the idea of authority but instead relocated it. The legitimacy to narrate is now derived not from one's mastery of the religious sciences but through one's own experiences and journey to the more virtuous life. Hefner argues that in the world of Instagram influencers, celebrity preachers present themselves as someone audience members can become, pious, wealthy, successful, fashionable, cosmopolitan, jet setting, and followed by many people. Compared with Muhammadiyah and NU, the new preachers emphasize a more restrictive understanding of everyday life and struggle of piety, but in many cases also related to the case of growing intolerance particularly concerning religious minorities. This problem shows that the democratization effect of social media has amplified the voices and influence of social actors who are not committed to the religious pluralism of Indonesia. Thus the political influence and social standing of NU and Muhammadiyah have been weakened by the emergence of numerous lively radical organizations and internal conflict within the respective organizations. NU grassroots efforts to combat growing conservatism by claiming that the new preachers did misinterpretation.