Driving home very late one night in Jakarta, I passed four men on motorbikes. The white tunics, trousers and skullcaps of the drivers and their pillion-riders, who carried furled green flags, stood out in the badly-lit street and marked them as vigilantes of the Islamic Defenders Front. The Front, or FPI, is a hardline Muslim group best known for smashing up bars and nightclubs. (Photo: Islamic Defenders Front motorcycle protest in Jakarta, 22 Aug 2004/Supri Supri)
The group is something of an oddity in an officially secular and predominantly Muslim country that is largely tolerant of other religions and ways of life. But a change in the political landscape could alter that.
Following a general election this month, Indonesia looks headed for a possible coalition between a centrist, secular party – President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party – and a conservative Islamist party called the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). Sunanda Creagh and I have written an analysis on how this prospect has worried Indonesia’s religious and ethnic minorities — click here to read it.
Conservative Muslim politicians pushed Yudhoyono’s previous government into promoting a controversial anti-porn law last year that could make some forms of art, whether painting or dancing, illegal if they are considered too erotic. The largely Hindu Balinese were furious; would this mean they could now go to prison for their erotic art ? what about the skimpily clad tourists who make a big contribution to the local economy ? Bali’s governor defied Jakarta and decided the island would refuse to implement the law.
The PKS has supported the introduction of sharia by-laws in some parts of the country and recently caused a stir when a PKS official tried to ban a traditional form of dance in West Java because he considered it too sexy.