Lady Gaga: Indonesian hardliners’ latest victory


Lady Gaga’s decision to cancel the Indonesian leg of her world tour due to threats by Muslim hardliners highlights how groups pushing a strict view of Islam are growing increasingly powerful, analysts say.

Home to the world’s largest Muslim population, officially secular Indonesia is often touted by Western leaders as a beacon of moderate Islam and a model for the Muslim world -- as visiting U.S. President Barack Obama did in 2010.

But a series of attacks on Christians, Muslim minorities and those deemed “enemies of Islam”, combined with the apparent unwillingness of the government and courts to clamp down has sparked concerns over the rise of the hardliners.

In the case of pop diva Lady Gaga, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) had threatened to “burn the stage” if she brought her trademark leotards, racy choreography and support for gay rights to Indonesia.

Branding her the devil, they said they would mobilize 30,000 supporters to create “chaos” if she performed.

International Crisis Group analyst Sidney Jones said groups such as the FPI were becoming increasingly confident in their push to get Islamic laws accepted by the mainstream, thanks to a series of successful campaigns.

“What’s clear is that there wouldn’t have been a thought of cancelling the concert if these groups hadn’t mobilized,” she told AFP. “It shows the power they have to affect the statements and policy of police.”

“Incident after incident, they organize a protest and see that pulling a group of people together for the television cameras and pressing a particular agenda has worked,” Jones said.

The impunity that hardliners often enjoy is due partly to the fear that officials have of taking them on, Ismail Hasani, program manager at the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, told AFP.

“The police and courts have proved they cannot handle these issues fairly. They’re often worried of a violent backlash if they punish hardliners.”

“Hardliners often foster close relationships with local governments, and some police even use them to help enforce the law through violent means.”

He identified the main problem as “not really related to the law or religion, but political power”.

The pressure that led the police to deny Lady Gaga a permit to perform in Jakarta was just the latest example of authorities buckling under threats by the FPI and similar groups.

Earlier this month, police shut down events by Canadian author Irshad Manji, who supports gay rights in the Muslim world, under pressure from hardliners who attacked the author, injuring her and a colleague.

Also this month, hardliners wanting officials to shut down a Protestant church on the outskirts of Jakarta threw bags of urine and pelted rocks at worshippers preparing to hold a service.

In one of the most shocking episodes, a mob of more than 1,000 people in western Java last year beat to death three leaders from the Ahmadiyah Muslim minority sect while police looked on, smoking cigarettes.

Such incidents have usually resulted in hardliners receiving either no sanction at all or lenient punishments.

The FPI, which sees its role as an enforcer of morals and Islamic law, accompanies police in some parts of the country on violent raids on bars and brothels, particularly during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

The group’s Jakarta chairman Habib Salim Alatas described the relationship with police as like a marriage.

“When we want to raid places of sin and cults, the police side with us to stop them,” Alatas said.

Hardliners gained more traction in 2008, when the government issued a decree restricting the activities of the Ahmadiyah sect.

The decree came amid mass protests and a week after the FPI stormed a pro-Ahmadiyah rally in the capital, injuring dozens.

The same year, the government passed an anti-pornography law that hardliners had long pushed for through televised rallies and an attack on the office of Indonesian Playboy magazine in 2006 just after it opened.

While the FPI is the most visibly violent group, many others are active behind the scenes, said Jones, from the International Crisis group, singling out Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI).

Gauging how much support the hardliners enjoy among Indonesia’s 240 million people -- 90 percent of whom identify themselves as Muslim -- is hard to say.

One recent survey by the Jakarta-based Centre for the Study of Religion and Culture among 1,500 Muslims, showed 74 percent were opposed entertainers wearing “minimal clothing” on stage.

In a separate survey by the Indonesian Survey Circle of 1,200 Muslims aged 15 to 25, 99 percent said they opposed homosexuality.

But among the 50,000 people who bought tickets to see Lady Gaga in Jakarta, some used Twitter to express their feelings.

“Really devastated and sad that extremist people ruined what could of been an amazing 2 hour night,” wrote one fan.