Money-Hungry Religious Celebrities Spark Anger

Money-Hungry Religious Celebrities Spark Anger

By Dessy Aswim on 8:37 am August 13, 2013.
A backlash is building against Muslim TV clerics who aren’t afraid to use their religion to garner business investors or demand hefty speaking fees. An example cited by critics is Yusuf Mansur, a popular ustadz (Islamic teacher) who frequently appears in religious TV broadcasts. Yusuf has recently attracted unfavorable attention because of claims he has been soliciting investors in a luxury hotel, without holding the required licences. The ustadz’s joint business venture aims to establish a condo-hotel in Jakarta focused on serving hajj and umrah pilgrims. The celebrity cleric claims to have more than 2,000 investors in the business, and says he has managed to accumulate funds worth Rp 24 billion ($2.3 million) from his followers in less than a year, since a call for investments began in July 2012.Drajat Wibowo, an economist and Muslim scholar, told the Jakarta Globe that business and religion should not be mixed in the same enterprise.

“If they want to do business then stop taking money from the public in the name of religion,” he said.

Although no one is accusing Yusuf of plans to defraud his investors, Indonesia is certainly no stranger to financial scams.

Earlier this year, many Indonesians lost money in a Ponzi scheme, in which scammers promise outlandish returns and deliver them for awhile by using money from new investors to pay out “dividends” to earlier investors.

Scams promising great return and wealth are aplenty, and often rely on spiritual overtones with promises by dukun , traditional “black magic” shaman.

The main concern is who will or can be held responsible should investments fail, said Hamdi Muluk, a psychologist from the University of Indonesia.

He cited the importance of government regulation to oversee and validate the legitimacy of businesses seeking public investments in order to protect the rights of naive investors. “If it’s against the law and has traces of manipulation, such business should be stopped, no matter who runs it,” said Hamdi.

Amidhan, chairman of civil religious authority Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), said that Shariah law alone could not protect the public. There must be legally constituted companies set up to handle investors’ money in religiously motivated schemes, especially when large amounts are involved, so transparency can be maintained.

“Personally, he [Yusuf] is an honest person, but he needs to build a legal body to support this joint venture. He has established his name and fame and there is no chance that the money will be misused. Those who invest in the business trust him, I don’t think he will take advantage of that,” said Amidhan.

In the world’s most populous Muslim country, there seems an unquenchable demand for preachers in all styles.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the rise and fall of populist preachers like Zainuddin Muhammad Zain, known as Zainuddin MZ, and Abdullah Gymnastiar, or AA Gym, both of whom coupled their religious teachings with light humor.

There is a debate on the religious cleric phenomenon with regards to the lifestyle cleric celebrities lead. There are some Muslim preachers, who despite their popularity and frequent media appearances, lead a modest lifestyle and maintain their privacy.

On the other extreme are preachers who live extravagantly and whose private life often becomes a media sensation involving luxury cars and other expensive hobbies.

The preachers are allowed to live extravagantly as long as they are not showing off their wealth, said Amidhan.

There has however been growing concern that clerics have abused their religious authority by overcharging for sermon services. The fee to invite a celebrity cleric can be upwards of Rp 30 million for a 15-minute speech, especially during the fasting month.

Media helps to sensationalize and distort religion, and becoming a cleric has become a profitable and prestigious profession, said Drajat.

“The media groom preachers and turn them into celebrities, people adore them and are captivated, willing to part with their money in the name of religion,” Drajat said.

“It should not be supported,” he added.

Amidhan said he strongly believes it is sacrilege for preachers to demand fees when they are invited to speak because it is akin to turning a religion into a business.

“As da’i (preachers) , if they receive donations when they are invited to preach, it’s fine, but it’s not right if they demand a fee up front,” he said. “They should simply accept the donation given to them, no matter the amount.”

Media expert Nina Armando blamed a “symbiosis” between media and preachers — the preachers need a platform while the media needs content.

It is up to the public to exercise their critical faculties when viewing, she said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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