Wai Weng Hew

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Piety, Property, and Politics: ‘Islamic Neighbourhood’ and ‘Religious Gentrification’ in Indonesia and Malaysia

In recent years, across cities in Malaysia and Indonesia, religious terms such as ‘Islamic’, ‘halal’, ‘shariah’ and ‘Muslim-friendly’ have been deployed to describe various places such as hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, gated communities and beauty salons. With taglines such as ‘Living in Islamic and Green Atmosphere’, ‘Islamic Smart Living’ and ‘the First Modern Islamic City’ (originally in English), there are increasing numbers of Muslim-only gated communities in urban and suburban Malaysia and Indonesia, catering to middle-class Muslims. I have proposed a concept of ‘religious gentrification’ to understand how and under what conditions pious middle-class Muslims appropriate urban places to meet religious needs and to pursue middle class lifestyles. It proposes that urban renewal and religious revival are a co-articulated process—on one hand, urban places are redefined to accomplish Islamic principles; on the other hand, Islamic practices are adapted to face urban conditions. Such gentrification process may exacerbate forms of inequality in which poor Muslims, non-Muslims and secular-minded Muslims may be marginalized, though not completely excluded.

Hence, religious piety, property development and the politics of urban exclusion intertwined behind the increasing numbers of Muslim-only gated communities and Muslim-majority neighborhood. Is ‘religious gentrification’ a term that can capture such an urban trend? Is such a development point to a kind of ‘Islamist urbanism’?  Based on examination of housing advertisement, interviews with the property developers, ethnographic research at some of the Muslim gated communities, this paper will further explore whether ‘religious gentrification’ is a right frame to understand the intersection between urban renewal and religious revival in Indonesia and Malaysia today.

Hew Wai Weng is a fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, National University of Malaysia (IKMAS, UKM). He has published on Chinese Muslim identities, Hui migration, and urban middle-class Muslim aspirations in Malaysia and Indonesia. He is the author of Chinese Ways of Being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia (NIAS Press, 2018).


National University of Malaysia