Travels and Travails: Cosmopolitan Muslims in Indonesian Cinema

Morgan Oey and Revalina S Temat in Assalamualaikum Beijing (2014)

Much has been written and discussed about new forms of Islamic pop culture, including television shows, music, and feature films. Scholars such as Inaya Rakhmani, Eric Sasono, and Ariel Heryanto have linked its appearance to the emergence of an Islamic middle-class in Indonesia who desire modern consumer lifestyle products that are consistent with their religious ideals. Discussions of recent Islamic films have therefore focused on the ways in which they describe a new Muslim middle-class habitus that show how aspirations and desires such as finding a spouse, building a family, pursuing higher education, and having a good job are all products of a pious life. Islamic pop culture expresses the intertwined desires of material wealth and social status maintenance with piety and religious obligations.

A recent trend in Islamic feature films sees the main protagonist(s) travel overseas to a non-Muslim country. Titles include Assalamualaikum Beijing (2014), Kukejar Cinta ke Negeri Cina (Chasing Love to China, 2014), 99 Cahaya di Langit Eropa (99 Lights in the European Sky, 2013), Haji Backpacker (Backpacker Hajj, 2014), and Jilbab Traveller (Hijab Traveler, 2016) amongst others. Whilst being overseas fulfills their aspirations for travel, education, love, and adventure, the foreign location and its culture is challenging for characters who desire to be pious and live according to their religious beliefs. How the characters negotiate these challenges reveals clues as to the emerging identity and politics of the Muslim middle-class. In this essay, I take three of these Islamic ‘travel films’ to consider the way in which the films deal with the intersection between an individual’s faith and the outside world.

Travelling overseas has become the latest marker of middle-class status in Indonesia evidenced by the proliferation of a new literary genre of travelogues, and Instagram posts showing Indonesians at airports and in foreign iconic locations. Going overseas, formerly a privilege only a few could afford, has increasingly become accessible to more people with the lifting of restrictions on exit permits, cheaper flights on budget airlines, and rising disposable incomes used for lifestyle consumption. It is little wonder then that Indonesian films have also described overseas travel as a desirable aspiration as in Eiffel… I’m in Love (2003), 6:30 (2006), Merry Riana: Mimpi Sejuta Dolar (Merry Riana: A Million Dollar Dream, 2014), and Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? 2 (What’s With Love 2, 2016). Most films in this travel genre have been secular in their orientation and do not discuss how an Indonesian identifying as Muslim might experience life overseas.

Since 2008 and the release of Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love, 2008) and Ketika Cinta Bertasbih (When Love Prays, 2008) Islamic-themed films have joined the overseas setting trend. Both films are set in Egypt, in and around Al Azhar University in Cairo where many Indonesians, including the stories’ author El Shirazy, have studied. Both films play up the exotic location of Egypt, especially Ketika Cinta Bertasbih which promoted itself as “100% Jamin Mesir Asli” in its promotional material. This was a rebuke to Ayat-ayat Cinta which was mostly shot outside Egypt. Guaranteeing that it was 100% Egypt also works to promote the film’s exotic scenery and locations for viewer enjoyment. In both films, the main Indonesian character is shown to be a dedicated and pious young man who is rewarded with love and marriage.

In Ayat-ayat Cinta, for example, the main protagonist Fahri is pious, learned, filial, selfless, and refined. He is clearly contrasted with coarse and violent Arab Muslim characters that lacked Fahri’s patience and respect. Through this contrast, Fahri became an ambassador for Indonesian Islam on the world stage, with President Yudhoyono saying the film shows the humane face of Islam. By distancing himself from Arab men, Fahri is able to attract the exotic and beautiful Turkish-German woman Aisha with whom he marries. Although Fahri struggles with his faith in the film, Egypt provides a safe and relatable context in which this could be explored because of the country’s shared Islamic heritage. What happens though when Indonesian Muslim characters are placed in non-Muslim countries and must engage in struggles over their faith?

Abimana Aryasatya in Haji Backpacker (2014)

Three Films

One of the first films to place Indonesian Muslim characters in a non-Muslim foreign location was 99 Cahaya di Langit Eropa (2013) directed by Guntur Soeharjanto. The film is based on the book by former television journalist and daughter of politician Amien Rais, Hanum Salsabiela Rais, and her husband Rangga Almahendra. 99 Cahaya follows Hanum and Rangga to Austria where Rangga is pursuing his PhD degree on scholarship at the University of Vienna. Austria is a ‘Christian’ country in Western Europe and, as the film points out, has an antagonistic past with ‘Islam’ after a failed invasion by Ottoman commander Kara Mustafa Pasha in 1683. This creates a scenario in which the two Indonesian characters are identified primarily through their religion as outsiders and a minority who must struggle to assert their rights and identity as Muslims in an unsympathetic country.

Hanum overcomes her outsider-ness by developing a friendship with a veiled Turkish woman, Fatma Pasha, and her daughter Ayse. Hanum learns Fatma Pasha is a descendant of Kara Mustafa Pasha when on a visit to the art gallery Fatma Pasha stands before his portrait crying before telling Hanum her family history. Likewise, in the opening scene of the film Ayse is teased at school following a lesson about Kara Mustafa’s failed siege of Vienna when the other students identify her as Turkish. Hanum develops a bond with Fatma Pasha and Ayse based on their shared experience of discrimination that Muslims in Europe face and through the solidarity they are able to develop due to their shared religion. Living in Austria is shown to be difficult in an early scene that shows Rangga struggling to order food in a local café because everything contains pork. The only item he can order is the fruit salad—an option he finds unsatisfying.

In an important section of the film, Hanum travels to Paris where she meets up with Fatma Pasha’s friend Marion Latimer who works for the prestigious Arab World Institute. Marion has also converted to Islam (muallaf). She takes Hanum to the top of the Arc de Triomphe – an icon of French nationalism—and challenges Hanum to guess where the Champs-Élysées points. Hanum offers a few wrong answers before Marion coaxes her to realize that it is actually a kiblat that points to Mecca, a symbol, Marion says, of Napoleon’s respect for Islam. In both historical and geographical fact, neither of these claims are true, but through Marion’s character the film is suggesting that Europe has a hidden Islamic history that has either been forgotten or repressed. This history is waiting to be rediscovered and reclaimed, allowing Muslims like Hanum and Fatma Pasha to claim a part of European history for themselves and a sense of belonging.

The second film is Haji Backpacker (Backpacker Hajj) released in 2014 by Falcon Pictures with director/writer Danial Rifki. The film follows Mada as he creates his own hajj route to Mecca to escape a life of sin in Bangkok. During his journey of spiritual redemption, Mada discovers different Muslim communities. Mada has moved to Bangkok because he feels betrayed by his family and Allah after his father died. As a result he seeks refuge in a life of drunkenness and partying. After he kills a Thai gangster one night following a drunken altercation, Mada flees Thailand journeying through Vietnam to Southern China where he is rescued and revived by a Chinese Muslim family in Yunnan. They put him back on the path of Islam, suggesting that he can seek redemption by returning to his faith.

Mada sets out from China and journeys through Tibet, Nepal, India, and Iran to reach Saudi Arabia. Along the way, he meets other Muslims who assist him with food and shelter as well as spiritual and religious guidance. In a climactic scene of the film, Mada is kidnapped by a group of Islamist militants in Iran when they stop the bus Mada is travelling on and accuse him of being an Israeli spy. Mada is taken away and ordered to prove he is actually Muslim by reciting a passage from the Koran. After conducting the correct ablutions, Mada begins to read a passage from the Koran in a sonorous voice full of beauty and sincere feeling. His reading causes the kidnapper to be visibly moved and he profusely apologizes to Mada for doubting his faith. Now ‘brothers’, he takes Mada out to dinner and secures his passage on a rich Saudi’s yacht as a deckhand, allowing Mada to make the final part of his journey across into Saudi Arabia.

The third film Assalamualaikum Beijing (2014) was released at the end of 2014 by Maxima Pictures with director Guntur Soeharjanto. Based on the best-selling novel by renowned Islamic novelist Asma Nadia, Assalamualaikum Beijing tells the story of Indonesian woman Asma who moves to Beijing to take up a journalism job. Partly she is driven to leave Indonesia after breaking up with her unfaithful boyfriend, and moving to China represents a new start and an adventure for her. Apart from being independent and career minded, Asma is also a Muslimah who wears the hijab and is clearly dedicated to her religion. When she moves to Beijing, she names her column ‘Assalamualaikum Beijing’ as she takes a particular interest in China’s Muslim population with whom she feels a sense of solidarity.

Assalamualaikum Beijing is also a story of the romantic relationship that develops between Asma and her Mandarin-speaking guide Zhongwen. Modelled on an actor from an East Asian television drama, Zhongwen is an attractive and romantic young man who seems to know a lot about the Beijing Muslim community. Asma suspects and hopes that Zhongwen is also Muslim, but one day Zhongwen confesses he is agnostic, dampening any hope she had of a romantic relationship with him. Although he has also fallen in love with her, their difference of religion makes any kind of relationship impossible. The object of her transnational desire seems out of reach. When Asma suffers an illness and is flown back to Jakarta for treatment, Zhongwen undergoes a period of introspection and longing, and converts to Islam in her absence before travelling to Jakarta to propose to her.

Although Asma is physically debilitated from her illness, Zhongwen’s feelings for Asma are deeper than mere physical appearance. He has fallen in love with her because of how her faith has made her a beautiful person akin to Ashima, a Chinese goddess he often equates Asma with. The film does however reveal a little deceit at the end. When Asma and Zhongwen return to China to meet his family, we learn that he comes from one of the Chinese Muslim families himself – albeit fostered by his Muslim aunt and uncle in Beijing. This means that he was culturally Muslim already even if he was not officially Muslim, making his conversion less of a leap, but indicative of the solidarity Asma was seeking with other Muslims in a non-Muslim country.

Abimana Aryasatya in 99 Cahaya di Langit Eropa (2013)


In all three films, the Indonesian protagonists identify primarily through their faith which becomes their primary prism through which their encounter and interact with the foreign society. Mada’s hajj is punctuated by stopovers with other Muslims; Asma focuses on China’s Muslim population; and Hanum and Rangga gravitate towards fellow Muslims and Islamic interpretations of European society. These other Muslims provide a familiarity and comfort that the non-Muslim society does not offer to them. By finding solidarity with other Muslims, the Indonesian characters are able to strengthen and reaffirm their own faith. They identify thus through their shared faith as Muslims and are enriched socially and spiritually as a result.

At the same time, by travelling and living overseas, Indonesian Muslims are not only discovering the world but they are becoming participants in global experiences of belonging, discrimination, and identity formation. Travel is not just a tourist experience replete with exotic locations and voyeuristic images, but the characters quickly have to deal with daily realities of these overseas locations. The three films are considered above highlight challenges of religious difference such as finding halal food in Europe, transnational love in China, or whether overseas travel is for sinful activities or for spiritual redemption. In this way overseas travel is shown to offer opportunities for spiritual renewal and to deepen one’s understanding of Islam as a world religion and to learn about the diverse communities of Muslims around the world.

Yet the three films leave the question about ethics and cosmopolitanism open: what kinds of global citizens are Indonesian Muslims? As the world has globalized and as more people travel and live overseas, how we interact and treat others have become important theoretical and ethical questions. In Ayat-ayat Cinta, it was a matter of showing that Fahri was a better Muslim than Arab Muslims, but in recent films the questions and consequences are different. Mada who flees a murder in Bangkok and who then befriends a kidnapper in Iran is hardly a paradigm of a good global citizen. Hanum buying into false readings of French architectural icons is not only misleading but potentially offensive to the French. Can we expect that our potential spouse will change religion for us?

As the Islamic travel genre develops, these ethical questions will increasingly come to the fore as scenarios force Indonesian Muslim characters to think about who they are in the world. There is no simple answer to this question and cosmopolitan ethics are fraught with difficulties and complexities. So far, it seems that Islamic films are content to see Indonesian Muslim characters gravitate towards other Muslim communities and share their struggles and position in an act of religious solidarity. These interactions are important and show that Indonesian characters are able to develop an awareness and solidarity beyond their own nationality. However, interactions and relationships that go beyond religion cannot be avoided. How these play out will be telling of the global imagination and positioning of Indonesia’s middle-class Muslims.