This Week in Asia

Da'i Syed's sex scandal: a test from God for Malaysia's reality TV Islamic preachers?

He is not the first reality television star to fall from grace and is unlikely to be the last, but when the young celebrity Islamic "preacher" Syed Shah Iqmal was charged with rape, unnatural sex and outraging the modesty of one of his female followers, it seemed like half of Malaysia had an opinion.

Syed Shah Iqmal Syed Mohammad Shaiful, 25, more commonly known as Da'i (a term for those who invite people into the religion), had grown immensely popular following his stint in the show Da'i Pendakwah Nusantara ("Nusantara Preacher"), in which contestants competed to be the next big celebrity preacher.

But it was his subsequent scandal, which follows that of other celebrity preachers before him - such as Abu Sufyan who in 2019 caused a scandal by leaving one pregnant wife and divorcing another - that has really shone the spotlight on this relatively new form of Islam-based reality TV.

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The genre has become increasingly popular among ethnic Malays by offering a "consumerist" version of Islam, says Dina Zaman, the founder of Iman Reseach.

"When I look at these shows, it reminds me of the K-pop sagas: suicide, toxicity in the industry, everything turned into a moneymaking venture," she says. "But for many working-class Malays, when they see a Malay person doing well it becomes aspirational, that sort of social capital. All these young men get to be 'hot' for the next few years because of the spotlight given to them by these shows."

Winners of the shows receive prizes such as a trip to Mecca to perform the haj pilgrimage, a job as an imam at a local mosque or even a full scholarship to universities in other Muslim countries.

Not coming out on top, however, is not necessarily a failure - some contestants on shows such as Imam Muda ("Young Religious Leader") or Pencetus Ummah ("Community Catalyst") go on to receive a healthy measure of fame, much like Syed who, despite only placing fourth, has enjoyed endorsement deals, a recording contract, acting gigs and a formidable social media following.

Contestant Hizbur Rahman takes part in the Malaysian reality TV competition 'Young Imam' in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP alt=Contestant Hizbur Rahman takes part in the Malaysian reality TV competition 'Young Imam' in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

As in most reality shows, contestants are chosen for their on-screen charisma - rather than their religious credentials, says Firdaus Wong Wai Hung, a popular independent preacher who has received criticism for previously supporting Zakir Naik, an Indian Islamic televangelist and fugitive wanted by the Indian authorities over allegations of terror-related activities and hate speech.

"It is an open secret that whenever we are dealing with reality programmes, it is not necessary for the best candidate to be selected. Sometimes they will consider a mixture of participants to increase the commercial value of the programme.

"Some might be selected based on their good looks, some might be selected based on their poor family background, and so on," he explains.

This was echoed by civil society group Sisters in Islam, which promotes women's rights within an Islamic framework.

"Producers and creators of this show are great in forming a religious-concept show - everything came on point in commercialising a religion for television sake; from the props to the music, lighting and the attire, as well," the group noted.

The danger, said SIS, came from the lack of official credentials held by these contestants. "Doesn't this gravely undermine processes and procedures issued by state religious councils? In the name of entertainment, anything is possible."

But these shows - which get contestants to participate in challenges such as preparing bodies for burial, reciting verses from the Koran and taking tests on Islamic theory - modernise religion in a way that appeals to younger Muslims and also accommodates a burgeoning middle class.

"Such celebrity preachers draw support from segments of Muslim youth and aspiring middle-classes. They might not have a strong religious education yet are eager to become more pious," says Hew Wai Weng, a research fellow at the National University of Malaysia's Institute of Malaysian and International Studies.

"Instead of traditional ways of learning Islam, they look for fun and easy ways of learning Islam. Hence, they do not expect the preachers to talk about an in-depth or critical understanding of Islam."

Or, as preacher Firdaus puts it, public outreach needs to be "dynamic" to adjust to a changing world.

"Personally I believe TV programmes are an effective way of doing this," Firdaus says, adding that social media is also a useful tool.

However, the nature of television is that sometimes participants are trained to act a certain way - and these actions may be "deemed unsuitable and undignified for someone who is spreading the message of Islam", says Firdaus.

"The participants are also taught how to cry and act to impress the masses, which is not a part of the teaching of Prophet Muhammad. Any act of worship in Islam demands sincerity ... fake tears to impress the audience can make it devoid of the blessings of Allah."

A shop selling headscarves in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP alt=A shop selling headscarves in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

'MY NAME IS AZMAN, AND I AM NOT A TERRORIST'

Such shows, geared at younger Muslims in a post-September 11 world, help to tackle Islamophobia, says Firdaus, who says "virulent propaganda" against Islam is "disproportionately" shared on social media.

Indeed, such issues often crop up in the shows. In one episode of Pencetus Ummah's second season, contestant (and later winner) Azman acts out being frisked and questioned by airport security. "Brothers and sisters, my name is Azman and I am not a terrorist," he says to applause from a crowded hall before discussing the representation of Muslims in film.

These shows are both a hallmark of rising Islamisation but also "pop Islam", says Syaza Shukri, a lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia's political science faculty, "whereby appearing Islamic is seen as popular because everyone is doing it".

The commodification of the religion has also led to preachers not being valued for substance but as a tradeable commodity of who can "sell the most".

"In this situation, it becomes difficult to weed out a true religious scholar who has spent years studying the Koran, from the person who knows Arabic because they studied the language. As is anything materialistic, the general public becomes easily swayed by what they see, and not the merit of the person."

The risk of things going wrong is heightened by the fact that handsome, charismatic young men might not be prepared for the sudden fame that comes their way.

"Being a celebrity preacher basically opens the door to opportunities to meet people of multiple characters and along the way the possibility to commit egregious acts," Syaza says.

"Suddenly these celebrity preachers find themselves in a position where people are throwing themselves at them for their own 15 minutes of fame. And then there are those who actually believe and listen to these celebrities because they carry the title of preacher.

"Since these preachers are famous and get the support of the public, they must be in the right, right? The glamour of the celebrity lifestyle may lead some of them to feel invincible."

But it isn't just the television shows that are at fault, insists Firdaus, and not every reality TV contestant is problematic. There are "black sheep" in every community, he says.

"Negative news sells and that is a fact. Preachers are not angels."

He points to Singapore's Pastor Kong Hee, of City Harvest Church, who was found guilty of misusing S$50 million (US$37 million) in charitable funds.

Meanwhile, D'ai Syed has denied all allegations, telling reporters he sees the matter as a test from God. "Sometimes I ask myself and God - why am I being tested like this. Maybe God wants to reprimand me."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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