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"Playboy" and the Mullah

Nathaniel MyersNathaniel Myers is Assistant Program Officer for Aceh Programs at the Asia Foundation in Jakarta.

by Nathaniel Myers

Indonesia recently witnessed a pair of dramatic releases: one a radical Muslim cleric from prison, the other a saucy men’s magazine from its editors. Both Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Playboy are now out on the streets and in the public eye, but neither is as significant as its opponents claim. Their releases and the public debate to which they have contributed, however, cut straight to the heart of the ongoing struggle for Indonesia’s self-identity – a struggle which has taken a dramatic turn of late.

Abu Bakar Ba’asyir is a radical Muslim cleric who was convicted of blessing the original 2002 Bali bombing, and suspected by some of providing much more. His name is on a UN list of terrorists, and undoubtedly Indonesia and the rest of the world would be safer if he were still in prison.

But his release in itself is not, as some charge, evidence that Indonesia is becoming more radicalized. Ba’asyir was released for the simple reason that the law required it: he had completed his 30-month sentence.

Indonesia’s government would undoubtedly prefer to see Ba’asyir languish in jail, but without any legal measure to justify continued detention, it had little option but to release him. Having done so, the government has been quick to impose a travel ban, freeze his bank accounts, and make clear that it will monitor his activities closely. Ba’asyir’s release is undeniably unfortunate and possibly dangerous – but it is the consequence of legal proceedings, not any sudden radicalization of Indonesia.

The case of Playboy is a much more accurate barometer of the state of religious radicalism in Indonesia. When Playboy unveiled plans for a nudity-free Indonesian edition early this year, it was denounced by politicians and conservative religious leaders as a threat to traditional values. The national parliament introduced an "Anti-Pornography Bill," which turned out to be a vaguely-worded document with the potential to outlaw not only pornography, but also certain traditional dances, sunbathing, and public kissing.

The proposed bill attracted support from moderate Muslim leaders, but its most vocal advocates were a collection of radical religious groups with a predilection for violence, led by the Islamic Defenders Front (known by its Indonesian acronym, FPI). This year alone, these self-appointed moral vigilantes have ransacked bars and nightclubs, attacked the American and Danish embassies, and stoned the offices of Playboy after its first edition – all with only occasional protests from the police. The FPI and its brethren took up the anti-pornography bill with vigor, organizing demonstrations in support and denouncing anyone who dared oppose it.

In the months following Playboy’s announcement, the public backlash against the magazine appeared to have pushed the Indonesian mainstream firmly to the right, an impression only furthered by the high visibility and loud belligerence of radical groups. Moderate Muslim activists and intellectuals tried valiantly to counter the radicals, but seemed unable to gain traction.

Late this spring, something changed, and within a few weeks moderates made dramatic public advances. The most striking demonstration of this political shift came after an incident in central Java, in which a speech by former President Gus Dur was interrupted by FPI members who denounced him for supporting pluralism and opposing the anti-pornography bill.

It was a public attack on a respected national and religious leader, and it was answered quickly by the leaders of the two most important Muslim organizations in the country. Representing a combined membership of more than sixty million Indonesians, they called directly upon the government to act against groups who engage in violence in the name of Islam, and denounced the behavior of such groups as un-Islamic, criminal, and a threat to national unity.

Newly emboldened, the government pledged to crackdown on groups that engage in violence, and announced plans to empower authorities to disband organizations that threaten ‘security and order.’ The Jakarta police have begun acting with new vigor: they charged one prominent radical leader with defamation for publicly calling women opposed to the anti-pornography bill "evil, wretched, and immoral," and then arrested the chairman and twenty members of FPI for attacking a group of cafes.

A national dialogue about fostering pluralism is now in progress, and has inspired renewed public interest in Pancasila, the national philosophy discredited during the Suharto years but now seen by some as a symbol of Indonesia’s historic pluralism. Meanwhile, legislators have said they will work to transform the controversial anti-pornography bill into a more targeted anti-smut ordinance. As for the Playboy, it has been met with the expected criticism – but no attacks and indeed, not even any demonstrations.

In sum, a remarkable shift in the national debate -- from how to make Indonesia more conservatively Islamic, to how to sustain Indonesia’s tradition of religious pluralism into the future – has taken place. The releases of Ba’asyir and publication of Playboy, however controversial, will not themselves alter this new discourse, but they offer an insightful glimpse into just how dramatically things are changing in Indonesia. The moderate agenda has gained important ground this month – but the struggle to establish Indonesia’s political and religious identity is far from over.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

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