Pic: Eduardo Mariz.

By Eduardo Mariz

Despite being the furthest Muslim-majority country from Mecca, Indonesia and its sizeable portion of adherents to Islam often presents the world with pious quirks away from the Middle Eastern countries, such as its ambitions to become an international Muslim fashion centre or a leader in Sharia tourism.

Muslims in Indonesia today choose to express personal piety through a variety of industries, from stylish clothing paid with Shariah banking credit cards to cable TV channels broadcasting talk shows and soap operas based on Islamic principles.

According to ANU researcher Greg Fealy, this tendency is driving consumers “towards individualised Islamic learning” and bringing Islam to the centre of everyday life in Indonesia, resulting in more plural interpretations of the religion and ways to observe it.

Media, however, is a very different realm and the digital age has fragmented mainstream Islamic media into a myriad of different portals, each with a different stance on values and the role of religion.

For instance, Republika was the only openly Islamic newspaper in Indonesia for almost two decades, but today its readership spectrum can also access multiple websites with a distinct Islamic prism to analyse the latest world news, lifestyle or national issues.

The most notable of these are Eramuslim and Hidayatullah magazines, focused respectively on political organisation and the spread of Islam and both carrying a strong traditional stance on Islamic values.

But perhaps the most ambitious project in Indonesia today is Mi’raj International News Agency (MINA), backed by the network of Al-Fatah Islamic boarding schools – or pesantren in Indonesian – the Islamic humanitarian NGO Medical Emergency Rescue Committee (MER-C), and financed through a network of Muslim donors across Indonesia – more fashionably called ‘crowdfunding’.

MINA has the ambition to provide the world with multimedia content and news items told and analysed through Islamic principles as well as to “compensate” for what they believe is “a global domination of Israeli opinion,” even among Indonesian mainstream media, according to deputy editor-in-chief Syarif Hidayat.

“We want to counter these imbalances and give the world an alternative news service that is more objective, more fair and also directed to Islamic countries. We are trying to give the world more objective news reporting to and from Islamic countries,” he says.

Syarif and Muhyiddin Hamidy, two former longstanding Antara journalists – Indonesia’s national news agency – set out to create MINA days after a 2012 conference in support of Palestine and have since gathered a team of 30 employees working with headquarters in one of Al-Azhar’s pesantrens in Cileungsi, West Java.

Amongst them are two correspondents in Gaza covering Palestine, one in Cairo and translators for English and Arabic, which together with Indonesian conform the three languages of distribution of the agency, which calls itself the first Islamic news wire in the world.

So far, much of their content is still derived from third-party reports but Syarif hopes that with enough interest MINA can move into a bigger office and dispatch correspondents to more nations, including Western countries such as the United States andAustralia, which have sizeable Muslim populations.

“In my opinion, MINA will become a big news agency because it is based on Islamic principles, so all Muslims and all Muslim countries will support this news agency because they will feel that they own (it), because of the principles it is based on,” he says.

What exactly “Islamic principles” means in news reporting is something he is unable to describe and the current rhetoric of the agency is largely centred around the struggle of Islam in today’s world, countering Western animosity, defending the Palestinian cause and the “liberation” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest place in Islam and presently in Israeli territory.

While some critics have dismissed MINA’s founding base Al-Azhar as part of a deviant form of Islam, Syarif defends the new operation, saying that their mission is to “work for uniting Islam,” and the agency has already garnered legitimate support from other major national news agencies such as Antara in Indonesia, Bernama in Malaysia and soon Anadolu in Turkey.

To date, MINA has shown more on blueprint than on output and its concept could be a hard sell against more comprehensive news services, but if it manages to strengthen partnerships and expand distribution it could bring about a new way of making news for Muslims in Indonesia and abroad.