World affairs:

Post-secular development

posted by Daromir Rudnyckyj

For most of the second half of the twentieth century development was assumed to be consonant with modernity and its attendant practices: secularism, reason, and science. However, it is increasingly apparent that the secularity of development should no longer be taken for granted. This is visible not only in recent initiatives for “faith-based development,” but also in movements that seek to develop faith by emphasizing religious ethics conducive to economic rationality.

For the past eight years, I have been studying the emergence of what might be referred to as “post-secular development” in Southeast Asia. I have documented initiatives in contemporary Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore that have formulated a mode of Islamic practice conducive to corporate success and transnational competitiveness. In documenting this phenomenon, I have argued that, whereas much of the post-colonial history of what were formerly called “developing nations” was characterized by what the anthropologist James Ferguson has referred to as “faith in development,” recent efforts to merge Islamic practice with scientific and technical knowledge instead represent efforts to develop faith. On the one hand, faith in development refers to the nationalist projects of facilitating economic growth through state-led industrial modernization that occurred in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the postwar period. In this configuration, the nation-state was to bring prosperity to its population through massive investment in industrial technology and production. On the other hand, developing faith refers to concrete initiatives designed to intensify religious practice under the presumption that so doing would bring the work practices of corporate employees into line with global business norms and effect greater productivity and transparency. Developing faith is not a complete break with faith in development, however, because both share the similar conviction that worldly problems can be solved through the proper application of technical and scientific knowledge.

The shift from faith in development to developing faith in contemporary Indonesia was particularly notable at state-owned Krakatau Steel, a massive steelworks in western Java where I conducted ethnographic fieldwork between 2003 and 2005. Historically, Krakatau Steel was absolutely central to the developmentalist ambitions harbored by Indonesia’s former authoritarian president, Suharto. The company was a focal point in the nationalist project of modernization. According to the prevailing developmentalist logic purveyed in blueprints for modernization like Walt Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth, Krakatau Steel was part of a complex of institutions that would deliver progress, in the form of industrialization, economic growth, and increased living standards, to Indonesia.

The 1998 Asian financial crisis, the end of the Suharto regime, and the increasing integration of Indonesia into wider global economic circuits have called faith in development into question. From the 1970s until the mid-1990s, Krakatau Steel had been the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in state development funds. For years state investment guaranteed the company’s viability, as it was able to keep up to date with advances in steel production technology. However, such investment was brought to an end in 1998, after the near bankruptcy of the Indonesian government. Tariffs on imported steel that had long protected the company from international competition were fully eliminated in April 2004. Finally, and perhaps most ominously for some employees, the Indonesian government has proposed privatizing Krakatau Steel, which could trigger sweeping job losses for members of a workforce that had previously been able to count on lifetime employment.

Given the wide-ranging changes taking place, the company’s existence could no longer be justified according to its status as a symbol of modernization, development, and industrialization. One foreman in the slab steel plant explained to me that, prior to the late-1990s, the “the social was the most important and profit was secondary,” but “now profit is number one and the social mission [misi sosial] is number two.” He said that this “social mission” was premised upon “padat karya,” which literally translates as “dense work” and refers to the practice of hiring more workers than necessary to operate businesses. The tension between the company’s social mission and its business mission was becoming increasingly acute. One general manager told me that a Booz, Allen, and Hamilton management-consulting audit of the company advocated releasing one-quarter of the company’s total workforce, corresponding to at least 1500 (out of roughly 6000) permanent, full-time positions. Some Krakatau Steel employees suspected that privatization would lead to the elimination of a substantial number of jobs. Managers often cited the practice of work spreading as the underlying reason for poor job performance at the company, claiming that employees at the company lacked motivation because they knew that they were superfluous.

To address the problem of employee motivation and prepare for privatization, Krakatau Steel managers sought to (in their words) “develop” the Islamic faith of employees by contracting a Jakarta-based company, the ESQ Leadership Center, to implement Emotional and Spiritual Quotient training at the company. The brainchild of the charismatic businessman Ary Ginanjar, ESQ asserts that a work ethic conducive to business success is present in the five pillars of Islam and the six pillars of Muslim faith (iman). He has drawn other ideas for the program from business management and life coaching sessions, like “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” that have greatly expanded in North America, Europe, and Asia in recent years. Through the multi-day training sessions that his company offers, Ginanjar stresses that Islamic piety should not only be restricted to religious worship. Rather, Islamic faith should animate all of one’s worldly activity, from interactions with one’s family to everyday work in the world.

At Krakatau Steel, ESQ training sessions were held once or twice per month. They were most often held in the large multipurpose room of the factory’s education and training center. The sessions usually ran from Friday through Sunday. The first two days started at 7:00 a.m. and lasted until just before the maghrib prayers, which usually begin around 6:00 in Indonesia. The third day included the program’s dénouement, which consisted of a simulation of three of the events that take place during the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca: tawaf, the circumambulation of the kaaba; the sa’i, a ritual that consists of running seven times back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah in Mecca; and finally the stoning of jamrat al-aqabah, in which pilgrims hurl rocks at three representations of the devil, symbolizing the rebuking of demonic temptation.

The training was structured through a sophisticated Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, consisting not only of graphs, charts, tables, and a litany of bullet points, but also with spliced film clips, colorful photographs, and popular music. The information conveyed was culled from a variety of web sites, including that of Harvard Business School. The training was delivered primarily as an interactive lecture in which the main trainer would alternate between engaging with the audience in the familiar style of a television talk show host and proceeding to deliver fiery and profoundly emotive lectures asking for collective redemption from Allah.

Ary Ginanjar draws evidence for the commensurability of Islam and what might be called the ethics of globalization by instructing participants in these programs that the five pillars contain lessons for business success. Thus, the fourth pillar of Islam, the duty to fast during Ramadan, is reinterpreted as a model for “self-control.” Based on this principle, ESQ seeks to inculcate the duty to constrain this-worldly desires in order to ensure other-worldly salvation. Corruption was a chronic problem at SOEs and was attributed to an uncontrolled desire for material wealth. ESQ sought to represent self-management as a divine injunction to remedy this rampant corruption. The third pillar, the duty to give alms (zakat), was taken as divine sanction for “strategic collaboration” and exercising a “win-win” approach in both business transactions and relations with co-workers. This principle was illustrated with an interactive exercise in which each participant paired up with another, shined his or her shoes, and then reciprocally paid the other for the service. A common critique of employees of state-owned enterprises was their poor customer relations. The exercise was intended to illustrate the importance of serving, rather than being served, for employees of a modern corporation.

In just seven years, ESQ grew spectacularly: by the end of 2010, over one million people had participated in the program. Although Krakatau Steel was one of the first companies to embrace it, the program has now spread across Indonesia to some of the country’s most prominent governmental institutions and state-owned firms, including Pertamina (the national oil company), Telkom (the country’s largest telephone company), and Garuda (the nation’s flag air carrier). Current and former military generals also are avid participants in ESQ, and several sessions have been held at the Army’s officer candidate training school in Bandung (SESKOAD). Recently, ESQ met its goal of becoming a national movement, having established branch offices in 30 out of 33 Indonesian provinces. In late 2005, the ESQ Leadership Center broke ground for a 25-story office tower and convention center in south Jakarta, funded in part through investment shares sold to past participants. When I returned to Indonesia in December 2008, large-scale spiritual training programs were being conducted in the already completed conference center portion of the building. Finally, ESQ has also “gone global”: the first overseas ESQ training was held in April 2006 in Kuala Lumpur, and, in 2007, regularly scheduled ESQ trainings were being delivered in Malaysia on a bimonthly basis. Mahatir Mohamed, the former Malaysian Prime Minister, recently endorsed the program. In addition, ESQ programs have been held in Singapore, the Netherlands, Australia, Brunei, and in 2008 Ginanjar brought the program to Houston and Washington, DC.

The spiritual training program was extremely popular at Krakatau Steel. According to one human resources manager, Sukrono, efforts to develop faith were the result of an updated reading of the Qur’an. He explained:

When we were a small developing country in the 1970s we thought that worship (ibadah) meant praying, giving alms (zakat), or going on the hajj, but this is not true. Now from studying the Qur’an we know that passages dealing with these things are only about 20 percent of the content, the rest of the Qur’an is about human relations. The crucial thing is that in everyday activity—waking up and going to work, doing family errands, and so forth—one’s intentions (niat) are toward worship.

Here Sukrono illustrates how the faith in development that had guided Indonesian modernization during the New Order had proceeded under the secularist presumption of the separation of religion from work and commerce. In contrast, after the end of the Suharto regime, managers like Sukrono have recast the Qur’an as a human resources management manual and seek to develop faith. In so doing, he echoed how Ary Ginanjar had transformed the five pillars of Islam into recipes for corporate success—for example, by rebranding zakat as “strategic collaboration.”

In response to what was conceived of as a “moral crisis,” spiritual reform reconfigured the relationship between faith and development in Indonesia so that faith itself became development’s object. During the New Order, development was the raison d’être of government policy and practice. However, after Suharto’s spectacular collapse, the logic of enhancement and growth that underlay the project of modernization was applied to the religious practices of industrial employees who were supposed to be the purveyors of development. Islamic practice, previously relegated to the background in Indonesia, was seen both as a means to revive economic growth and as something to be developed and enhanced.

Developing faith did not represent the end of faith in development, but rather a reconfiguration of its rationality, creating what I refer to as post-secular development. The same modernist logic that had guided the project of Indonesian development was still at work. Implicit was the assumption that worldly problems could be addressed through technical intervention and the application of human knowledge. Thus, faith was not viewed as a mystical or irrational practice, but as something that could be instilled through design. Developing faith and, in so doing, creating new patterns of human life, was executed according to the same logic that earlier guided building bridges, toll roads, and factories. Religious practice was something to be enhanced through a series of technical interventions. For many citizens in contemporary Indonesia who had come of age during the heyday of faith in development, Islamic spiritual reform appeared to resolve a number of oppositions that had plagued the project of modernization. ESQ spiritual training offered a recipe for living that was simultaneously Muslim and modern. Thus, post-secular development enabled one to be both an engineer and a devout adherent of Islam.

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2 Responses to “Post-secular development”

  1. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    In the West, it was called “The Protestant Ethic” by Max Weber. It took the form of camp meetings with preachers like the trainers described here. And it has taken the West to the edge of the Earth’s limits—global warming, overpopulation, peak oil—along with poverty, corruption and growing prison populations. One can only hope that the Muslim world will learn from our mistakes.

  2. avatar Shahbaz says:

    This is a wonderful piece of work illustrating a particular phenomenon taking place from faith in development to developing faith. Religion is employed for various purposes, peaceful and violent, productive and non-productive, efficiency enhancing and catering to laziness. But the real issue always remains to be addressed, where and how to draw a line between reasonable and unreasonable use of religion. Moreover if we start empolying it for so-called reasonable purposes then we also need to think how would we prevent its unreasonable use. I can understand that this sort of enquiry is not within the purview of the above analysis, as it is meant to describe a different and emerging phenomenon, but at least we keep on raising such issues as these type of issues start puzzling us when we come across so-called unreasonable use of religion.

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