Lady Gaga's cancelled concert a blow to tolerance in Indonesia?

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.

Dita Alangkara/AP
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.

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

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.

“The government is pretty sure that this rising conservatism, rising radicalism among certain segments of society is very dangerous and should be dealt with,” says Mr. Abdalla. But fears of a backlash from social conservatives have led to official pacifism from the government.

Cause for concern?

Though most of Indonesia's population dismisses the FPI as a group of thugs not to be taken seriously, activists are worried. 

“The majority of people here I believe are moderate, but they don’t realize the situation is getting more and more serious,” says Harsono, who says groups such as the FPI and Hizbut Tahrir, which advocates for a pan-Islamic caliphate, are growing increasingly influential.

Some estimate the FPI to be some 30,000- strong. The group's chairman, Habib Rizieq, has more than 140,000 Facebook followers.

“The FPI has real power and real friends in the government,” says Harsono, who also says that the current chief of the National Police has befriended several FPI leaders.

Those friends have helped shield many hardliners from punishment, say activists, who point to an attack in February 2011, when a mob of some 1,000 Islamists killed three Ahmadiyah men. Despite video evidence, a court later sentenced 12 of the attackers to short prison terms of between four and six months.

“People are really frustrated with the FPI, but they are afraid,” says Tunggal Pawestri, one of the founders of Indonesia Without FPI, a small group of rights activists who are trying to push back against hardliners. “It’s only people who have a lot of guts who can protest in public.”

It’s the police and government’s responsibility to enforce the law and ensure the safety of its citizens, she says echoing the sentiments of many Indonesians.

The police say they do what they can, saying they had more than 5,000 officers on hand to guard the Lady Gaga concert and were fully prepared to provide adequate security.

“We’re not afraid of the FPI, if they threaten someone we will investigate and send the case to the court,” says National Police spokesman Saud Usman Nasution, adding that Islamists are free to protest.

Increasingly violent

But those protests had become increasingly threatening in the lead up to the concert. After saying they would use violence to prevent Lady Gaga from getting off the plane in Jakarta, one FPI member broadcast on Facebook that he had snapped up more than 100 concert tickets, heightening concerns that the group would try to create chaos inside the venue. During a protest last Friday a coalition of militant organizations threatened to burn the stadium.

On Sunday the FPI reacted with jubilation to the cancellation, thanking those who fought to “defend the moral health” of the nation.

Meanwhile, fans and supporters poured out their sympathy. “She doesn’t teach violence. She teaches us to be confident,” says Adiyanti Firdausi, who participated in a flash mob dance on Sunday in honor of Lady Gaga dressed in costume from the Judas video, a bandana wrapped around her headscarf.

While many said they were disappointed –some were on the verge of tears – others worried how the decision would reflect on Indonesia internationally. “It means the situation in Indonesia is becoming more severe,” says Ms. Firdausi.

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