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Post date: Jun 07, 2012 1:54:29 AM

Creeping threat of moral vigilantes

The Straits Times

7 June 2012

Whether loved or loathed, flamboyant entertainers should not be intimidated by so-called guardians of public morals. This was the case when Lady Gaga was forced to cancel her concert in Jakarta earlier this month following threats of physical violence made by groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front. Lady Gaga is no stranger to religious controversy. She has drawn the ire of Christian groups in South Korea, which declared her recent concert there an adults-only event. And Christians in the Philippines have accused her of blasphemy.

However, unlike the protests in those countries, what emerged in Indonesia was the prospect of brute force. The holier-than-thou vigilantes are doubtless exulting over their well-publicised victory in a culture war with an international celebrity. Lady Gaga's response to their venomous show of power was poignantly apt: 'There is nothing holy about hatred.'

More than the disappointment of a cancelled concert is at stake here. It illustrates how Indonesia's religious hardliners are encroaching into the public sphere.

Their targets range from those deemed apostates to non-Muslims and Muslim public intellectuals who dare to offer a liberal, progressive and inclusive version of religion.

The vigilantes, though in a minority, are getting away with attempts to dictate the moral climate of the mainstream. Their cumulative successes are gathering ominous momentum in a country once praised for its tolerant and often eclectic practice of religion.

Some local authorities now reflect hardline leanings too. Aceh, which has adopted syariah law as part of a regional autonomy package designed to weaken separatist sentiments, was supposed to be a special case.

However, other places seem similarly keen. Tasikmalaya in West Java will enforce the syariah by requiring all Muslim women, whether residents or visitors, to don veils.

An official justified the move because Muslims account for 99 per cent of the local population. Arguments such as this, based on raw numbers rather than political principles, could fuel insecurities and endanger the legitimate rights of minorities down the road.

As the largest country in South-east Asia and home to the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia's internal bedrock of unity in diversity has provided a sound platform for building ties with other countries in the region.

Globally, it is the face of tolerant Islam. Indonesia's moderate centre needs to resist the onslaught from the fringe and reaffirm the politics of inclusivity that is the nation's strength in a globalising world.