The crowd loves it. By the time Aa Gym ("elder brother" Gym), finishes his hour-long sermon with a plangent Islamic hymn, scores of women and men are openly weeping, and the roar of applause continues long after the TV cameras have been switched off. When he plunges into a crowd after a performance, there are always eager hands thrust out reaching for him, some fans even bowing down and kissing the preacher's hand, whispering a name to be remembered in his prayers. And always there are scores of squealing teenage girls hovering on the sidelines, a few of the braver ones occasionally darting forward to get the great man's autograph, then retreating in a flurry of giggles and a swirl of head scarves.
In a country where the best-known Islamic preachers are stolid men in their 60s who quote from the Koran in Arabic and confine their sermons to the mosque, Aa Gym is unique. The flamboyant 40-year-old spreads his message of self-control, personal morality, tolerance and faith with televangelistic theatrics. Although Islam is the granite base on which his message rests, Aa Gym's sermons tend to dwell on the practicalities of daily life rather than the hazy hereafter. His stock-in-trade includes greeting-card clichEs, self-help nostrums and pithy doses of advice on how to cope with the challenges of child rearing, on succeeding in business (his three-day management seminars, costing $200 a head, are booked up for months in advance), even on a healthy sex life. "We feel like he cares about us," explains 22-year-old Irsan, wiping his eyes after a regular Thursday-evening sermon in Aa Gym's native city of Bandung, a four-hour drive from the capital Jakarta. "I hope that after listening to him that maybe I'll change slightly for the better."
Aa Gym's personal touch and natty dress—he favors blazers, turtlenecks and gold-embroidered dress shirts, as well as the more usual flowing robes—has transformed him into a household name in Indonesia. He owns 15 publishing, broadcasting and other media ventures that help spread his message, and operations are booming. His secretaries sift through some 1,200 invitations to speak every month. Although he first appeared on national television only two years ago, Aa Gym says he is now able to charge up to $100,000 an hour for broadcasts during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts Nov. 6. "Every station wants him because his approach is different," says Teguh Juwarno, spokesman for RCTI, one of the country's largest TV stations. "He is about improving one's self and not blaming others."
But Aa Gym doesn't confine his homilies to self-improvement. Increasingly, as the country lurches from one disaster to the next, he is focusing on the bigger picture, linking personal morality to the future of much-troubled Indonesia itself. "We will only advance if we follow our conscience," he likes to say. "No party or group will ever unify Indonesia. That must come from within us, our conscience."
But despite the grim death toll in Bali and the government's inability to contain violence, the reality remains that militant views are held by a tiny minority of Indonesians. The tolerant, middle-of-the-road religion espoused by groups such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, which between them have a membership of some 70 million, is the true face of Islam. That may be another reason so many turn for reassurance to the charismatic Aa Gym, proudly positioned at the forefront of the moderate majority. He is a thoroughly modern Muslim. He advocates a 21st century religion that complements and enhances the benefits of technology. "Aa Gym has become big because he teaches a very human side of Islam and practices what he preaches," says Juniwati Masjchun Sofwan, a member of the influential Council of Indonesian Ulemas. "He is concerned about advancing Muslims economically through modern-day practices of business and religion." Indeed, Aa Gym preaches prosperity to his followers. "You must remember, the Prophet Muhammad, blessed be his name, was a businessman himself," he says, "and a very good one, too."
To many Indonesians, Aa Gym's rising prominence makes it almost inevitable that he will take on a greater role in the public life of the country. That in turn would mean stepping down from his pulpit and dirtying his hands in politics, something the preacher has so far shown a deep reluctance to do. An advocate of tolerance and forgiveness, Aa Gym is one of the only Muslim leaders in Indonesia to have publicly spoken at a Christian church. In late September, he attended a reconciliation ceremony held near Poso in Central Sulawesi, where thousands have died in recent years in clashes between Christians and Muslims. He has broad appeal, too. Considering his military background—his father was an army lieutenant colonel, and he himself served as a student military leader—political analysts say Aa Gym could lock up two of the most critical voting blocs in Indonesia, the Muslim majority and the army.
Then there's the X factor, the personal magnetism that has drawn hordes of acolytes, from secretaries to corporate bigwigs. "I don't just listen to him," says Lieut. Colonel Ahmad Saefudin, who leads an army cavalry division in Bandung. "I follow him." Chairul Tanjung, chairman of Bank Mega, one of the country's 10 largest banks, puts it differently, but the enthusiasm is the same: "Our generation has few people like him. The country needs someone who can help reduce the gap between business and morality."
Sitting on the floor of the veranda attached to his family's modest living quarters, Aa Gym waves a hand to dismiss the notion he is bound for office. "To play politics never entered my mind," he says. "There are plenty of people in politics already. I want to imitate the Prophet. He said that the best a man can be is to be of benefit to others." Yet for all his disdain of "playing politics," Aa Gym allows that circumstances could change. On other occasions, he's talked vaguely about his "target" of 2009, a presidential election year. "Anything could happen tomorrow," he says.
Nor does Aa Gym pretend that he doesn't already wield serious clout. "I could push 100,000 people from the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta (where he preaches once a month) to the U.S. embassy. It would take 10 minutes to walk, and it would be very difficult for the police to stop them. With God's will I could use that power. But I won't. My program is for Indonesians to control themselves, to not be emotional. If we are emotional we have problems."
But surely it must be tempting to exercise that power, particularly at a moment of such national peril? No, says Aa Gym, at least not now. To prove his point, he tells of a recent visit from a powerful government figure from Jakarta. "They know that I have many people behind me, and he asked if I wanted to take power, do a revolution. But I said, 'Look at my eyes. Do I look like someone who would do such a thing? I will never do anything bad to anyone.'"
In fact, a glance into Aa Gym's mahogany eyes shining behind steel-framed glasses reveals his lively intelligence, but less of what might motivate the man. Already he displays a politician's wariness about exactly what to reveal to his public. If he's not yet a pol, he's already a consummate showman. The talent was developed early. Born the first of four children, he took a variety of jobs—from selling newspapers to driving a minibus—to support himself before and after his years as an electrical-engineering student and a fledgling entrepreneur. But according to Ahmad Soliekhin, one of Aa Gym's closest aides and a former conductor on his minibus, it was their experience together as itinerant buskers that brought them the most success. "We used to get called back to the rich people's houses the next day for a repeat performance," says Ahmad, smiling broadly at the memory. "Aa Gym sang and they liked it very much."
The lessons learned from those early performances were reinforced by his success as a university debater. To this day, Aa Gym displays a professionalism in his public appearances that must be the envy of many of Indonesia's current crop of less-than-media-savvy rulers. Watch Aa Gym as he tapes his minisermons in the small television studio run by one of his 15 companies. Hopping onto a motor scooter—his preferred ride is a hulking black Kawasaki Eliminator, which remains under its dust cover on this day—Aa Gym putters slowly through his little empire, a patch of about one square kilometer in Bandung that houses his myriad enterprises: the radio station; the website offices; the publisher that puts out his 32 books and dozens of cassettes and VCDs; the cooperative supermarket; the mosque, with its attendant school for 500; a rest house for the numerous visitors and for management-training seminars; two orphanages, one of which is located in a house he was originally going to move into himself but decided was "too fancy," according to aide Budi Hartono. Budi adds similar tales of expensive cars that his mentor bought, drove for a while, then rejected as overly opulent. "He prefers a van," Budi insists. "It is more practical."
During a ride to the studio, Aa Gym is all smiles and jokes, waving and greeting almost everyone. The mood persists after he enters the building and sits down at a desk where he is to tape several of his minisermons. Aa Gym makes faces at himself in the monitor and clowns with the makeup brush. "You see how I do everything I can myself," he says, "even putting on makeup so that I don't need to bother other people." But when taping starts, Aa Gym snaps into performance mode. His voice drops an octave, his face changing in a second from a broad smile to the serious, concerned demeanor of a wise uncle giving guidance to his favorite nephews and nieces. The topics could be taken from a Reader's Digest article: "The Greatest Failure is Never Trying," "Forgive and Forget," "The Importance of Politeness," "Don't Be Envious of Success."
With a notebook computer open on the desk in front of him, Aa Gym hardly pauses for breath as he tapes 13 sleek homilies in a row, all exactly timed to 11/2 minutes with the help of an aide crouching in front of his desk with a stopwatch. "I could make 40 or 60 in a row if I had to," he says, squatting to pose with the children of two families of admirers who have traveled from distant Sulawesi to catch a glimpse of him. "It's easy for me to give those speeches because I do those things every day. You have to do what you say."
The bravura performance is at the core of the man's mystery. Is he just "the Britney Spears of Islam," as he is characterized by Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, head of Indonesia's Liberal Islam Network? Is he merely a feel-good merchant who uses religion for his commercial ends? Or is Solahuddin Wahid, vice chairman of the 40 million-member Nahdlatul Ulama, right when he says that Aa Gym's "sincerity is his strength. He's creating a society based on his words and deeds."?
It is a sharp divide, and one that Aa Gym and his aides are uncomfortably aware of. Although the preacher clearly enjoys the toys he can now afford—the publishing business alone brings in $130,000 a month, aides say—Aa Gym insists that his flying lessons, the $2,000 DVD player installed in one of his cars and, yes, even the glistening Kawasaki Eliminator are simply utilitarian. "I have enough money to buy anything I want, that Lexus for example," he says, pointing to a black model with smoked-glass windows. "But I don't. The van is more practical. All my technology is state of the art because I need to be efficient. I don't indulge in buying it for fun but for necessity."
A few days earlier, Aa Gym declared that "Indonesian leaders fall because they wear masks to hide weaknesses in their characters." His goal, he says, is "to build their characters and prepare a generation of professional Muslims." It's a noble goal. At a watershed moment in the history of a troubled nation, Indonesia can ill-afford another leader who hides behind a mask.