Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Is this the beginning of the end for Indonesians' civil liberties?

Indonesia may have lost a lot more than the opportunity to see Lady Gaga when, last weekend, she announced the cancellation of her June 3 concert in Jakarta. The episode could mark the beginning of the end for Indonesia's civil liberties as radical groups continue unabated in their assault on the nation's freedoms.

Those who care about their freedom should speak up and fight to defend it rather than busily trying to distance themselves from Lady Gaga and whatever it is they believe she represents through her songs and stage appearances.

The news that the American pop diva had cancelled her Indonesian gig must have come as a huge relief to many people, most particularly the police. The prospect of a violent disruption by the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) as 52,000 "Little Monster" fans watched Lady Gaga at Bung Karno Stadium has now been averted.

Thanks to her, police now do not even have to deal with the dilemma of whether or not to issue a permit. They would have been very unpopular with conservative Muslims if they decided one way, and would have earned the wrath of her young fans if they went the other way.

Lady Gaga has settled the dilemma for the police. She has rightly refused to comply with the strict requirements regarding her stage appearance in order to gain a permit, such as submitting in writing the songs she would sing and the costumes she would wear. And she must have had her fans as well herself in mind when she spiked her Jakarta date after police clearly stated that they could not guarantee her or her fans' safety in view of the protests against her concert.

The real losers in this episode, however, are not Lady Gaga and the 52,000 fans who bought tickets (many of them will be heading to Singapore, where she has apparently added another date to perform, free from FPI harassment). It is actually the nation that has been made so much poorer in terms of its freedoms.

Contrary to what many people believe, even among those who have spoken for our freedoms in the past, the battle being waged by the FPI and Muslim conservatives was never really about Lady Gaga. The stakes were much higher. This was an assault on our freedom of expression.
It certainly marks the return of censorship on artistic expression, not by the state as in the past, but by the use of raw mob power. Don't be so shocked if all Indonesian and non-Indonesian performing artists from now on are required to submit their song lists as conditions for their permits. Before long, all types of gatherings will be equally subject to censorship.

Coming so close on the heels of the FPI attacks on the promotional tour by Canadian liberal Muslim writer Irshad Manji, the assault on freedom of expression is now almost complete. The discussions of her book Allah, Liberty and Love in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, even those held on university campuses, were forcibly shut down by the FPI with the help of the police.

Sadly, many Indonesians have been quick to dismiss these events as problems confined to Lady Gaga and Manji. Performing artists and scholars who should have been defending their freedom were instead busy distancing themselves.

It did not escape their Indonesian critics that both Lady Gaga and Manji are defenders of homosexuality. This could be one reason why many people in Indonesia, where homophobia runs deep, would have nothing to do with them.

But as Lady Gaga moves on with her performances elsewhere and sells more records, and as Manji continues to recruit followers for her moral courage movement, it is Indonesians who have to brace themselves for more assaults on their freedoms and civil liberties.

Those who think that the assaults on freedom will stop with Lady Gaga and Manji, and who thus remain silent, are sorely mistaken. They are the ultimate targets, and victims.

These two victories have only emboldened the FPI and similar radical Islamic groups to flex their muscles and torment those who don't follow their strict moral beliefs. On a winning streak, they must already be planning their next move and targets.

Just look at the current state of the freedom of religion. The silence of the "silent majority" has allowed the FPI to harass, torment and even kill followers of religious minorities. The attacks became increasingly violent and the targets widened because no one, or only very few, spoke up in defence of the religious freedom of minorities.

Now freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are about to go the same way. Don't bank on the police - the people sustained by taxpayers' money - to come and protect our freedoms. In the attacks on religious minorities and in the episodes with Lady Gaga and Manji, police were part of the repression.

A pattern is clearly emerging where religious conservatives are pushing their strict Islamist agenda at the expense of our civil liberties. Not only do they have representatives in government, in the House of Representatives and among religious scholars, they also have thugs working on the streets to impose their agenda by force.

This raises a serious question about where Indonesia is now heading, 14 years after it got rid of the Suharto dictatorship and launched the reform movement.

Are we seeing the emergence of a new form of tyranny, one that is defined more by the strength of the majority? Where are those on the other side of the fence in this Indonesian version of cultural war? Will they rise up and speak out to defend Indonesia with all its plurality and the civil liberties needed to hold this nation together and keep it moving forward? Or, will they just take these assaults lying down, as they have been doing?  

Endy Bayuni
The Jakarta Post
PubAsia News Network May 31, 2012 1:00 am

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