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Lady Gaga's cancelled concert a blow to tolerance in Indonesia? (+video)

Lady Gaga cancelled her biggest show in Asia because of Islamist vigilante threats, which has some worrying about a return of Islamist militancy to the Muslim world's largest country.

By Correspondent / May 29, 2012

Muslim men shout slogans during a rally against US pop singer Lady Gaga's concert that is scheduled to be held on June 3, outside the US Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, May 25. Lady Gaga cancelled her sold-out concert in Jakarta, the biggest on her Asia tour, Sunday, May 28, because of Islamist vigilante threats.

Dita Alangkara/AP

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Jakarta, Indonesia

For Lady Gaga’s Indonesian fans, Sunday was a day of mourning. For the country’s 240 million citizens, most of them Muslim, it was the culmination of weeks of debate over whether Islamist hardliners are gaining ground in Indonesia

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Why Lady Gaga concert was cancelled in Indonesia

Lady Gaga cancelled her sold-out concert in Jakarta, the biggest on her Asia tour, Sunday due to threats from a group of Islamists who call the American pop star a “devil worshiper” and complained that her style and dance moves are pornographic. 

The Lady Gaga saga is one of many incidents recently, where Islamist groups have threatened or used violence against what they say are attempts to destroy Indonesia’s religious and moral fabric. Some worry recent events could mark a resurgence of violent Islamist activism that could ultimately threaten the democratic gains Indonesia has made since the end of the Soeharto dictatorship in 1998.

“This is part of the dilemma of the transition to democracy,” says Ulil Abshar Abdalla, head of the department for policy studies within the ruling Democrat Party. “On one hand we have the phenomena of rising intolerance, and on the other hand we have a weak government unable to address this issue.”

Indonesia is a secular state and has made strides by allowing much greater freedom of speech and expression since the end of Soeharto's rein.

In the years following Soeharto's ouster, Indonesia was wracked by sectarian violence, separatist movements, and Al Qaeda-style terror attacks like the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than 200 people. But by the middle of the past decade, Indonesia's transitional crisis had cooled. Militant groups were on the run, and emerging democratic institutions were finding ways to mitigate communal conflicts that earlier had been flaring into violence.

But this month, Islamist hardliners led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have been throwing their weight around. They injured several people attending an event by Irshad Manji, a Canadian proponent of liberal Islam and a lesbian.  On May 6 protestors in a Jakarta suburb launched stones and death threats to disperse Protestant worshipers forced to pray on the sidewalk since local authorities stopped construction of their church in 2010.

The FPI has a long reputation of vandalizing bars and nightclubs for selling alcohol. It has also violently attacked Christian worshipers and smaller Muslim sects, namely the Ahmadiyah, a group persecuted in many majority-Muslim countries as heretical for not believing that Muhammad was the last prophet.

Rights activists accuse the police of turning a blind eye, allowing the FPI to act with impunity.

“The police over the past decade have basically tolerated the FPI and others, allowing them to grow,” says Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch Indonesia.

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