Indonesian singer wags hips, bumps heads with clerics

This country's morality watchdogs - Muslim teachers and politicians - have met their match.

A year ago, Inul Daratista was playing weddings for a dollar a song. Now she plays packed houses across the country, and the president's husband hangs out backstage at her concerts. According to Gossip magazines, Ms. Daratista - better known for her writhing dance, "The Drill," than for her renditions of Indonesia's pop music dangdut - is the country's best paid entertainer.

Hard work and a sinuous pair of hips have no doubt contributed to her success. But most observers also give credit for Daratista's fame to members of the Council of Indonesian Islamic Scholars, who branded her dancing "devilish" and "lustful" in a statement earlier this year.

As her fame has risen, so has public anger at religious leaders trying to limit freedom of expression. The controversy is a timely reminder that while Islamic militants have made inroads in the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesians are in some ways more relaxed than Muslims elsewhere.

"I don't think there's anything sinful about dancing or having a good time. This is one of the few pleasures we have,'' says Suparno, a 45-year-old factory worker who attended a pro-Daratista rally with his wife last week. (Like many Indonesians, he has only one name.)

When Indonesia's longtime dictator Suharto was deposed in 1998, hard-line Islamic groups saw an opportunity to convert Indonesia's secular state into an Islamic one. Small militant groups began to attack karoake parlors, bars, and nightclubs, all complaining they were destroying the nation's moral fabric.

They won a number of quick victories, including tougher government laws on selling liquor during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and it seemed Indonesia was about to chart a much more Islamic course.

In some way, conservative Islam has continued to make steady gains in Indonesian society. More Indonesian women wear Islamic headscarves than a decade ago, and about 30 percent of the legislature is now controlled by Islamic or Islam- leaning parties.

But Islamic revivalism has mostly remained confined to personal choice rather than becoming a matter of state sanction. Although some may disapprove, women here are free to wear miniskirts, drink in bars - or shimmy their hips to make a living.

And as the case of Daratista is showing, many average Indonesians are finally standing up and saying they don't like being told what to do. The government has taken notice: Thursday in Jakarta, Habib Rizieq, the leader of a Muslim gang that specialized in attacking bars and nightclubs in Jakarta for two years, went on trial for inciting violence.

The reasons for this lie in Indonesia's largely tolerant culture, but also to public revulsion at censorship after the Suharto years, when no independent media voices were allowed.

"We have to appreciate Inul because freedom of expression wasn't allowed for 32 years under Suharto,'' says Diah Bintarini, a member of the Indonesian Women's Coalition, an activist group that organized a pro-Inul rally last week in Jakarta. "We won't let people take that freedom away again."

In neighboring Malaysia, also a fairly relaxed, mostly Muslim country, unmarried Muslim men and women are banned from kissing or even holding hands in public. Such laws are occasionally enforced with canings.

The controversy over Ms. Daratista was kicked into high gear by Rhoma Irama, who first popularized dangdut in the 1960s. The thick-waisted "king of dangdut" favors white leather bodysuits and scarves modeled after Elvis Presley. He accused Daratista's dancing of "throwing dangdut in the mud, tearing apart the nation's social fabric, and encouraging illicit sex."

But pronouncements by Mr. Irama and the clerics have done Daratista's career about as much harm as similar complaints about the swivel-hipped dancing style of Elvis. They touched off a veritable stampede to buy Inul videos and concert tickets, while Indonesia's TV stations engaged in bidding wars for her services, proving that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

At the pro-Inul rally, about 350 fans, old and young, followed a truck through the middle of Jakarta as it blared Inul's hit "Dance, Dance" while attempting to mimic her patented move. The best dancer was a popular transvestite entertainer who went on to lead the crowd in chants of "Inul for President."

The controversy around Daratista is also a reminder of the large cultural shift that has taken place since the fall of Suharto.

Since then, a film industry that was killed off by censorship has been reborn, the number of commercial television stations has more than doubled, and a new generation of local stars - influenced by the style of America's MTV and the ability to reach a greater audience, has been born. Some of the biggest winners have been performers of dangdut, which blends Arab, Indonesian, and traditional Malay sounds.

Dangdut has long been considered the music of Indonesia's poor, combining melody lines from flutes, rock 'n' roll guitars, and wavering vocals that hark back to Arab folk music. The name "dangdut" derives from the liquid sound made by the tabla - an Indian drum - that is the rhythmic backbone to every song.

But the new opportunities have meant that old stars have been shunted aside. One of them has been Irama, who was the dangdut favorite of official Indonesia in the late Suharto years. He would delight thousands at pro-Suharto rallies in the 1990s and was rewarded by being nominated for the legislature by Suharto's Golkar party in 1997.

"I don't like what Rhoma's been doing, he should keep his mouth shut,'' says Suwarno, a 45-year old factory worker who came with his wife to the rally. "He's just jealous that she's more famous now."

Former President Abdurrahman Wahid, who is now the head of the country's largest Muslim organization, has also come out in defense of Daratista. He told reporters last week that no cleric has the right to decide what people can and cannot do in a democratic society.

Mr. Wahid even held a meeting with Irama at which he advised the aging singer to tone down his criticism. Most Indonesians appear to agree: A recent survey in the weekly magazine Tempo found that 78 percent of Indonesians oppose banning Daratista.

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