Global Fallout on Indonesian Cancellation of Gaga Gig

Three days after rock diva Lady Gaga cancelled her sold-out concert on concerns that Islamic militants might commit violence, the fallout continues in Jakarta, with the two English-language dailies taking radically different stances and with international dismay growing at the country’s rising radicalism.

The abandonment of the concert by one of the world’s most popular pop stars, provocative as she is, has earned the country, usually described as the world’s most tolerant Muslim society, an international black eye. Some 52,000 tickets had been sold for the event, scheduled for Sunday. Although the 26-year-old singer has faced protests from Christian groups at her shows in the Philippines and South Korea, they have been allowed to continue and have gone off without incident. She was scheduled to fly to Jakarta after playing three shows in Singapore, then fly to New Zealand and Australia and on to Europe.

Gaga issued an apology to her Indonesian fans on Twitter, saying she was “just as devastated as you if not more. You are everything to me. I will try to put together something special for you. My love for Indonesia has only grown.” She had said earlier that she wouldn’t tone down her shows to accommodate the Indonesian audience. Some 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslims, although just how Muslim they are is open to question. Much of Indonesian Islam is a mixture of animism and witchcraft. Other pop stars including Beyonce and the Pussycat Dolls have performed there, although they reportedly agreed to tone down their dress.

The cancellation of the concert is just one of many incidents in which hardline Islamist groups, particularly the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, have threatened or used violence. They have particularly taken after Christians and the Ahmidiyah Muslim sect although they often threaten women on the streets for dressing in what they think is immodest fashion. They have also been known to break up nightclubs. The FPI is widely thought to be closely connected to the National Police, who are said to use them against groups or individuals they don’t like. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has taken considerable criticism from human rights groups in the country for not acting to curb what most people say is an extremely small fringe of radicals. There are suspicions that the police sometimes use the FPI to threaten violence as a means of extortion from those who are threatened.

Following Gaga’s announcement, Salim Alatas, one of the FPI’s leaders, was quoted in local media as calling the cancellation “a victory for Indonesian Muslims. Thanks to God for protecting us from a kind of devil." The FPI had vowed to bring thousands of protesters to Sukarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta when the singer’s plane landed. Others said they had bought tickets to the concert itself to try to wreak havoc during the performance.

The Indonesian government’s record on human rights was recently reviewed by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Geneva for increasing cases of intolerance, with witnesses questioning the government’s commitment to protect the rights of minorities and reduce the level of violence against minorities.

Human Rights Watch complained in discussing the UN commission’s review that “While Indonesia has made great strides in consolidating a stable, democratic government after five decades of authoritarian rule, the country is by no means a bastion of tolerance. The rights of religious and ethnic minorities are routinely trampled. While Indonesia's Constitution protects freedom of religion, regulations against blasphemy and proselytizing are routinely used to prosecute atheists, Bahais, Christians, Shiites, Sufis and members of the Ahmadiyah faith – a Muslim sect declared to be deviant in many Islamic countries. By 2010, Indonesia had over 150 religiously motivated regulations restricting minorities' rights.”

The Jakarta Globe apparently caused a revolt among its own staff with an editorial condemning the singer and saying she had no place in Indonesia. That kicked off hundreds of posts on the paper’s website, most of them condemning the editorial and calling it an embarrassment to the paper’s reputation. One reader called the editorial “the most controversial editorial ever being published by the respected news site of Jakarta Globe,” adding that he had “never before observed such an outrage in the comment section before, which can only mean that readers do care.”

Across town, the Jakarta Post condemned the National Police for their failure “to perform and exercise their constitutional mandate, at least in the eyes of the promoter of the American singer’s first tour to Indonesia.” The cancellation of the concert “”deals a major blow to the police’s reputation and should lead the public to question the force’s much-vaunted reform agenda. With all the powers that the police assumed following political reform in the late 1990s, come great responsibilities. The Lady Gaga saga, however, seemingly proves the expectations wrong.”

By contrast the Globe editorial said the cancellation of the show “was definitely the right decision.” It cited what it called many justifiable reasons for opposing acts like the singer’s, “such as the messages these supposed artists project. It is not about how she dresses, which is needlessly provocative, but about what she sings and the lyrics of her songs. It is about the lack of morality in what she represents.”

The country, the editorial said, “must accept that Indonesian society is different and that we cannot be expected to be as liberal as other societies.”

The editorial had staff at the paper complaining openly on Facebook and elsewhere about being embarrassed by the editorial and worrying that it represents a shift in the Globe's journalistic standards.