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by Nicola Abe
Published by: Der Spiegel
Date: August 09, 2010
It’s like American Idol. Except in this Malaysian reality TV show, the goal is to find a religious role model. Young men compete in challenges such as washing corpses and ferreting out unmarried couples. The winner gets a MacBook and the chance to lead prayers in public.
Nuri Ali Arbain had never dreamed of becoming an imam. But he also wasn’t one to miss an opportunity, which explains why he was standing on a stage with the number 1801 pinned to his shirt, staring into the serious faces of the jurors and blinking into the lens of a television camera. He was wearing his Islamic cap and a freshly pressed shirt. He was only a farmer with a side business in used computer parts, just a boy from the village. He liked riding his motorcycle. As a child, he used to go hunting for fish with a bow and arrow. He didn’t really belong here on this stage in front of a TV camera, and he knew it.
Nevertheless, when two of his friends had told him that they were driving to the capital and asked if he wanted to come along, he agreed right away. There was a casting call for a TV show, they had said. Astro Oasis, a Malaysian TV network, was looking for a young imam who could help put an end to moral decline in the country and get young people more interested in Islam.
The winner would become an imam at one of the big mosques in the capital, travel to Mecca and study at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. Most of all, however, he would receive a cash prize of 20,000 ringgit (about €5,000 or $6,600) a car and a MacBook. In the show, which follows the format of Western reality TV shows like American Idol, the goal is to find talented young religious leaders.
At 6 a.m., Nuri and his friends got into Nuri’s car, which he had bought after saving his money for months and eating only two meals a day to save even more.
Making It Past the First Round
The road took them through the green valleys of Malaysia, past little wooden houses on stilts, to the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur. At about 8 a.m., they reached the headquarters of Jawi, the government Islamic affairs department, which determines which imams are to lead prayers in the city’s big mosques.
Hundreds of young men were sitting on the floor, studying their miniature versions of the Koran. Some were wearing long, white Jalabiyas, while others were dressed in Adidas sweatshirts and jeans. Here they meet people like Hizbur, a very serious-looking young man who was already married, had studied in Egypt and Syria and spoke perfect Arabic, but not a word of English.
Over the next few hours, Nuri listened to the young men recite from the Koran, witnessed the jury’s verdicts destroying their dreams and saw their tears. His two friends didn’t make it past the first round.
At about noon, it was his turn. Although he had never attended a religious school, he knew the Koran by heart, because his father had taught it to him. Why shouldn’t I try my luck, he thought to himself? After all, he prayed five times a day, just like the others.
His voice was strong and clear when he recited the first verse. And although he may not have understand everything he was saying, he was familiar with the rhythm of the words and knew how to find the melody of the verses — and he won over the jurors. The boy with the pretty face, black moustache and flashy rings made of fake silver had qualified for the next round.
Chosen as One of 10 Candidates
During the next few days, Nuri completed a personality test, answered general knowledge questions (for example: What is Thailand’s currency?) and recited more verses from the Koran. Eventually, he was chosen as one of the 10 young men who would move into the guesthouse of the Wilayah Persekutuan Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, where they would spend the next few months both as candidates on a Western-style reality TV show and being trained to become religious leaders.
Nuri quickly made friends in the group. They are young and proud to be Muslims, and to be part of a big and important community. They fear God, but they also believe in the power of money. One man, for example, works for an Islamic bank and says that his dream car is a BMW. And then there is Asyraf, who is studying Islamic law at a university in Kuala Lumpur and has already been working as an imam part-time.
Asyraf, whose smile turns young, veiled girls into fans and who always knows what the jurors want to hear from him. Asyraf, who says that he doesn’t want to win, because this competition isn’t about winning, but about what God wants, inshallah. And who prefers not to mention that he likes going to a karaoke bar with his friends.
And then there is Hizbur, who, at 27, is the oldest in the group. Hizbur, with his goatee and black eyes. Hizbur, who teaches the Koran to children, who doesn’t laugh and doesn’t cry, and who is serious about everything he says — even the orphanage he wants to establish one day. Hizbur, who has fewer Facebook fans than the others but the best results on the written tests.
Hizbur’s father, a respected man, founded two religious schools, married two women and fathered 16 children. Hizbur and his siblings had to recite verses from the Koran every morning before leaving the house.
In English class, Hizbur is the only candidate who didn’t know what it means when someone says the word “cool.” “Why do you keep saying that?” he asked. “The word is cold.” The teacher explained it to him, and after that he used the word constantly.
No Contact with Friends or Family
As a child, he secretly went swimming in a river behind the village after school. It was only in the water that he felt free and light. But when his mother caught him, she tied his hands together as a punishment.
His father wanted at least one of his sons to become an imam. Hizbur had the strongest voice and was the best at remembering the holy verses. He attended a religious school. The father died when he was 11, and Hizbur was sent to a religious boarding school. He stopped swimming.
“Hizbur is the wisest one of us,” says Nuri, “but he denies himself everything.” Hizbur says: “Islam is a religion that permits pleasure, but there always have to be limits.”
Nuri and Hizbur now spend their days living by strict rules. They live in simple rooms furnished with a bed, a desk and fluorescent lights, and women are not allowed to enter the guesthouse. They have no contact with family and friends, and no access to the Internet or telephones. Every morning at sunrise, they go jogging with the group, and then they spend the rest of the day in lessons: English, Arabic, psychology, Islamic religion and acting.
Every week, two of the candidates are required to conduct Friday prayers in one of the big mosques in Kuala Lumpur. When it’s his turn, Hizbur is nervous and his hands shake, but he is convincing. For recreation, the candidates are allowed to play Paintball or go riding with the head of Jawi.
Preparing a Body for Burial
The weeks in the Wilayah Persekutuan Mosque always have a certain theme. The first week’s theme is death.
The cloying odor of decay seeps through Nuri’s respirator mask long before the body is brought into the room. He is wearing a light blue plastic gown and gloves. It isn’t the first time he has been asked to wash and bury a body in accordance with the customs of Islam. But this time it isn’t the body of a relative, but of someone no one wanted, a person who lay dead in an apartment for two weeks before anyone noticed.
Nuri’s heart races when he thinks about it. He carefully dabs at the porous skin with a wet cotton cloth, while the other candidates cut the toenails, clean the ears and drain any remaining fluid from the bladder and bowel. Nuri’s group was lucky. Hizbur and the others had to clean the body of someone who was HIV positive.
Finally, they wrap the bodies in white sheets, carry them outside in coffins, dig a grave and pray. Tears run down the child’s face of 18-year-old Syakir.
All of this is filmed, edited and broadcast on the show, which goes out once a week on Fridays. “‘Imam Muda’ is the most successful religious program of all time,” says Izelan Basar, director of private broadcaster Astro Oasis, “at least in Malaysia.” The format, he adds, is a “groundbreaking innovation.” There has been no criticism of the show so far, says Basar. “We want to promote a modern, tolerant Islam.”
Part 2: Giving Islam a Modern, Likable Face
But “Imam Muda” isn’t just the brainchild of a religious TV station. It’s also an image campaign being conducted by Jawi, which is trying to use bureaucratic methods to Islamize the country. Jawi wants Islam, the “religion of state” in Malaysia, according to the country’s constitution, to acquire a more modern, likable face, and to appeal to a young audience.
Jawi officials were on the committee that selected the 10 candidates for the show, and they also appointed the head of the panel of three judges: Hasan Mahmud al-Hafiz, the former chief imam at the national mosque. He alone decides who is kicked off the show and who wins, and in this sense he has more power than Simon Cowell ever had. There is no public call-in voting here. The Darwinist principle of the casting show has been retained, but the democratic aspect of it was eliminated. The audience doesn’t pick the winners on this show — the head of the jury does.
The pious Hizbur is one of the jurors’ favorites from the very beginning, and they always rank him among the top few candidates. Nuri, on the other hand, quickly begins to slide, mostly because of his poor performance on the written tests.
Nevertheless, he performed well in the practical exercises. When the candidates visited an orphanage to teach Islamic religion, no one connected with the children as quickly as Nuri. He wept when he said goodbye to the orphans. Even the adolescents who had been speeding on their motorcycles and were stopped by the future imams and the police were more likely to listen to Nuri than to the other candidates.
One week, when the theme was “preventing adultery,” the candidates went on patrol with the Jawi moral police. At night, they crept around Titiwangsa Lake, a popular meeting place for young couples. Lovers like to sit by the water there, against a backdrop of Kuala Lumpur’s brightly-lit Petronas Twin Towers against the night sky.
The candidates were divided into two groups. With one camera team, they approached the surprised couples and told them that their behavior was inappropriate for unmarried Muslims, and that it was “haram,” or illegal.
‘More Than Just a Religion’
But the program took it a step further. The candidates went to hotels and asked the staff for printouts of their guest lists. Then they searched for suspicious names and stormed their hotel rooms.
Different laws apply to Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of Malaysia’s population, than to non-Muslims, be they Chinese, Indian or from another minority. Muslims must submit to the religious police and the Sharia courts. If an unmarried couple is found in a hotel room, the man and the woman are hauled before a Sharia court, where they are usually sentenced to a stay in a “rehabilitation center” — where Muslim counselors are on hand to help them return to the straight and narrow.
“Islam is more than just a religion,” explains juror Hafiz. “There are rules for every part of life, for the community, for the economy.” Hafiz, a man with fine features, a fatherly smile and a goatee, is very sure of himself. He exudes calm in his movements, as if Allah were with him. “Religion without politics; that’s like an airplane without wings,” he says, laughing. His jokes sound like threats.
The weekly show, when decisions are made about the candidates, takes place in the Wilayah Persekutuan Mosque, an enormous modern example of Islamic architecture. The magnificent mosque, with its minarets jutting proudly into the sky, its green spaces, parking lots, gleaming marble floors and chrome-plated banisters, seems to make a statement: that Islam and the modern age are compatible.
The journalists who are invited to attend the show sit in a crimson-carpeted room where weddings are usually held. Women shrouded in black and men in jeans dart around the room, all of them barefoot or in socks.
The show is filmed on a simple white set lit by green spotlights. The potential imams stand in a row, their hands folded together, all wearing the same black suit and the same shirt, buttoned up to their necks. But somehow, despite their austere outfits, the candidates manage to look appealing.
Chief judge Hafiz enters the room, looking dignified, disciplined and unassailable. The young men rock back and forth nervously. “You are like sons to me,” he says. “I feel sad whenever I have to send one of you home.” But, he adds, the journey doesn’t end then, inshallah. Even if this is the day on which some of the young men are to be sent home, he says, they should not give up. They should continue to learn and pray, and then, inshallah, God willing, perhaps they will become imams one day, after all. He weeps.
Despite his tears, Hafiz is engaging in the same media sadism that characterizes American Idol when he asks a few candidates to step forward and form a new row, divides them up into pairs without any recognizable system and, in doing so, sends the candidates an unmistakable message: You can do it, but you can’t.
Nuri doesn’t make it into the final. Neither does Syakir, the youngest, or Amiril, the fat one, who the jury accused of being more enthusiastic about eating than working.
But the journey isn’t over yet for the candidates who don’t make the cut. Before they can go home, they are placed in what amounts to a quarantine. They stay in a Sharia-compliant hotel in Malaysia, where they continue to be supervised, without any contact with the outside world. The De Palma Hotel on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur seems luxurious, with many guests from Saudi Arabia. Petrodollars are important for Malaysia.
The hotel, which offers discounts for members of the government, has a swimming pool and a mosque. Pork and alcohol are not served, and the call of the muezzin echoes through the lobby five times a day, calling the faithful to prayer. The candidates are required to stay at the hotel for one week after being disqualified from the show.
When Nuri returns home to Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast, where he and three friends rent a house, he is suddenly a minor celebrity. Young men ask him for his autograph, and girls cover their faces with their hands, giggling and whispering his name. But now Nuri wants to focus on his career.
The two finalists are Hizbur and Asyraf, the devout one and the smooth-talking one. “Mashallah,” says Asyraf, “it is God’s will.” He says that he is sad that his friends can no longer share this wonderful experience with him, and that he doesn’t understand why he, of all people, should be one of the finalists. If Jawi uses the media for its benefit, why shouldn’t Asyraf use Jawi? Even the cleaning staff loves him. He isn’t as attractive as Nuri, and he never stood out in any particular way, but his performance was consistently good. He says that he wants to spread an Islam that isn’t too liberal.
The two finalists are hardliners, one out of conviction and the other out of opportunism.
Now it’s time for the two young men to make their media appearances. The finale has to be promoted, and the papers want interviews.
They are taken to a Kuala Lumpur suburb for the photo shoot, to a place called “Studio Rom.” It would normally be a target for the religious police, with techno music blaring in the room, women walking around in high-heeled shoes and skin-tight leggings and an openly lesbian photographer who curtly instructs the finalists on how to pose. Smiling is not wanted. Looking too friendly doesn’t fit the profile of an imam. The young men are supposed to inspire reverence.
The grand finale in this strange experiment, this blend of religion and pop culture, takes place at Jawi. The main building of the Islamic affairs department looks a bit like a mosque. Hizbur and Asyraf are wearing black robes trimmed in gold. Juror Hafiz says they are both “extraordinary.” Then he announces his decision: Hizbur is the loser. His face betrays no emotion as he kisses Hafiz’s hand.
The winner isn’t the handsome Nuri or the pious Hizbur. The winner is Asyraf, the audience favorite. The outcome is just what the fans waving their Asyraf banners outside wanted. It’s almost as if television has won a victory over piety, man a victory over Allah.
The organizers plan to market the concept in other countries soon.
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan
This House Believes That Imam Muda is Harmful.