The sacred and the profane: Indonesian churches and Lady Gaga

The pop-star Lady Gaga and Indonesian churches have both been the recent target of a thuggish group called the Islam Defenders Front.

By , Staff writer

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    Singer Lady Gaga waves upon her arrival for her concert tour at Taipei Songshan airport in Taipei on May 16.
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Lady Gaga, the pop-star known for envelope-pushing stunts that might even make a young Madonna blush, and the churches of Indonesia now have something in common.

They've both been targets of the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders Front), a group of self-appointed morality cops who have been increasingly brazen in demanding their own chauvinistic approach to Islam be pursued in the Muslim world's biggest country.

Gaga had a concert scheduled for Jakarta's largest stadium this June 3. But in the past week the FPI has issued a series of escalating threats, with the group's leader Habib Rizieq threatening to send a mob to the airport to wait for her, and to break up the event by force if she made it to the venue.

The response? The Jakarta police caved, refusing to issue a permit for the concert citing security concerns.

That's just the most recent in a string of successes for FPI muscle-flexing, and the least serious. While there are free speech issues at play, a group of well-to-do Jakarta teenagers deprived of the chance of seeing their favorite singer is hardly a tragedy. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Earlier this month, the group dogged the speaking tour of Irshad Manji, a Muslim reformist and out lesbian. Her promotional effort for her new book "Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom" was cut short.

One Jakarta event was shut by police, citing security concerns. Another in the capital ended with her being escorted from the venue by the police after club-wielding FPI members showed up. A stop at the University of Gadjah Madah in Yogykarta, one of the country's most prestigious schools, was cancelled the next day after more FPI threats.

FPI arrests so far? Zero.

More disturbing has been a recent surge of harassment and closures of Indonesian churches.

Earlier today, congregants of Filadelfia Church in Bekasi, a poor Jakarta suburb, had rocks and sewage water thrown at them as they tried to enter to church to celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ.

A Protestant church in Aceh province, at the northern tip of Sumatra, was shut earlier this week by local police under pressure from the FPI.

Catholic leaders in Central Java also complained this month they haven't been able to get a permit to build a new church, because of intimidation by the FPI and other Islamist groups.

The FPI has also been involved in recent years in attacks on Indonesia's tiny Shiite community and larger, but still small, Ahmadiyah sect, whom they consider heretics. Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been largely silent on the vigilantism.

The FPI emerged in the mid to late-1990s. In the chaotic years after Soeharto was pushed from power by mass protests in rioting in 1998, they often appeared to be more of a street gang in a symbiotic relationship with the country's notoriously corrupt police service than a genuine Islamist movement. Their thugs frequently targeted bars and establishments selling liquor in Jakarta, for instance, but relented just as soon as protection payments to the relevant police commander were increased.

For the most part, they stayed out of the small religious wars fought on Sulawesi and in the Maluku provinces (once known to Europeans as the Spice Islands) that were fueled by more radical groups like the Laskar Jihad and the Jemaah Islamiyah (the later group strongly influence by Al Qaeda's ideology), and their violence was both far more limited in scope, and far more useful to various people in power.

I hadn't thought much about the FPI for years (I left Indonesia after a decade living there in 2003). But today, with Indonesia in many ways a model for a successful democratic transition, with a growing economy and a cooling of the regional conflicts that dominated the early transitional years, they appear to be stronger than ever – and setting their own agenda. Endy Bayuni, former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post (whom I worked under in my first job in journalism, as a copy editor in '93), writes that the group now has 30,000 followers.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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