This essay uses the instance of an Islamist flash mob to explain how, in Muslim Southeast Asia, a long-standing Islamist visual and auditory repertory is currently being reshaped in and through its interaction with both a national public sphere and international trends, and how a new-found repertory of spectacular street performance provides Malay Islamists with the means to articulate local political concerns with global pop aesthetics. In doing so, this chapter moves away from the ways street spectacle and a remediation of such performance through social media have mostly been studied for progressive and ‘artivist’ causes only, showing little concern for conservative, poor, reactionary or, in this case, Islamist appropriation of the very same imagery, technology and formats. The chapter aims to explain what is so appealing about the global format of the flash mob, and by whom, and to what ends it is being mobilized locally in Southeast Asia. The flash mob, in its combination of mob politics and sheer commercialism, its transgressive and attention-seeking noise versus global fashions, is shown to be a transitory and highly unstable genre that flawlessly captures the spirit of a Malaysia in precarious times.
Keywords: Islam, Malaysia, mob politics, social media, Muslim Modernities
The Square, the Mob … and ‘Love for the Prophet’
Late afternoon, 6 October 2012. Some of my long-time Islamist acquaintances had just picked me up at Lawan Pedang Street in suburban Shah Alam. Unrest had been in the air for weeks, with general elections upcoming, and many anticipating the opposition – Islamists among their ranks – having a real chance of overthrowing the ruling National Coalition for the first time. But little of this commotion is evident on this sultry afternoon, with young Malay couples and their children flocking to Shah Alam's centrally located Freedom Square, playing with toy guns, balloons and soap bubbles.
That evening, Shah Alam would be the stage for, what some Islamist friends had enthusiastically referred to as, the ‘world's first ever Islamist flash mob,’ with plans to ‘occupy’ the square and make their voices heard. The flash mob was carefully orchestrated by Munsyid Malaysia, a professional organization established only a year before with the intention of collectively promoting Islamist performing arts to a larger national audience.