Indonesia's Bluenoses Stymied

For all the global concern that Indonesia is increasingly in the thrall of fundamentalist Islam, a huge number of its 220 million-odd citizens have greeted the implementation of the country's strict anti-pornography law with typical Indonesian civil disobedience. They have largely ignored it.

The jaipongan, the swaying, sensuous Javanese dance that kicked off the concerns of the bluenose brigade, appears to be going on as it always has despite a recent warning by the governor of West Java that it violates the porn law and the dancers had better stop shaking their booties with traditional gusto. Many bars and karaoke joints in Jakarta – often owned by police and generals remain filled with eager prostitutes, scores of scantily-clad “massage” girls and the odd go-go dancer stripped down and oiled up. The famed dangdut music, a blend of Arab, Indian and Javanese rhythms involving sensual lyrics and fast rotating buttocks, is still going strong.

Curiously, even some conservatives oppose the law, largely because of fears that it will spur vigilantism and challenge traditional cultures in places like Papua and Bali. A coalition of Christian, student and ethnic minority organizations went to court earlier this week to challenge the law, which was passed by the House of Representatives last November.

Analysts say almost universally that the law came about not in response to any upsurge of public smut – Indonesia is pretty tame, despite its nightlife – but because President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his nominal allies, principally the powerful Golkar Party, believe they need the conservative Islamic vote in upcoming elections, which are to be held on April 9 for the 128 seats of the Regional Representatives Council and the 560 seats of the House of Representatives. Presidential elections are due July 8, with a possible runoff in September. The law originated with the fast-growing Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, although the largely secular ruling coalition of Yudhoyono's small Democratic Party and Golkar cynically backed the law.

The coalition taking the law to court failed in its first attempt on Monday when the Constitutional Court said their presentation was inadequate and ordered them to come back in two weeks to try again.

In the meantime, enforcement is pretty much invisible. Prosecutors, the judiciary and the police say the law is too vague to enforce. Indonesia is having as much trouble defining pornography as the United States Supreme, when Justice Potter Stewart wrote in Jacobellis v. Ohio in 1964 that “hard-core pornography is hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” Beyond that, for Indonesia it is very much a case of the eye of the beholder. The country is a vast collection of islands, ethnic groups and religious groupings. It ranges from Bali, where village traditions remain strong; to Papua, where penis gourds are still common in the hinterlands; to Jakarta, with its nightclubs, malls and glitz; and to liberal – largely Christian north Sulawesi. Although the country's population is nominally 90 percent Muslim, only a small percentage – fewer than 10 percent, analysts say, are fundamentalist. For the rest, Islam is leavened with mixture of animism, magic and Hinduism, particularly the Ramayana story.

Since its founding in 1945, the country has been guided by a kind of nebulous philosophy called Pancasila, or five principles: belief in a single god, Indonesian unity, “just and civilized humanity,” democracy and social justice. The concept of a single god is meant to accord equal footing to all religions, although it is nominally illegal to be an atheist.

Given the vague nature of some of the bill's provisions, many feared its implementation could become a cultural and religious battleground. In the bill, for example, "sexual harassment" is cited as pornography but is not fully defined. "Nudity or appearances that give an impression of nudity" are off limits. Anyone who is a "model" for pornography could also be punished with a lengthy prison term and a fine, a definition that would seem to include fine arts models. Already artists have begun to worry that their gallery exhibitions may be cancelled or they may find it harder to work in Indonesia as a result of the law.

Perhaps the biggest question posed by the law is that its language appears to give a role not only to the central and local governments in "preventing the making, distribution and use of pornography," but “society” as well. Although the law says popular action must be in line with the rule of law, nobody is quite sure what that means.

The indifference with which much of Indonesia greeted the new law doesn't mean there won't be trouble. The followers of the radical Islamic Defenders Front routinely harass moderates and sometimes accuse women of prostitution who merely travel alone at night. The concern is that the FPI will consider the legislation a license in a newly opened hunting season on moderates. The organization's thugs have on occasion destroyed bars, nightclubs and even artwork in the past and last year ransacked an officially sanctioned Pancasila commemoration on the grounds of the national monument in Jakarta, wounding dozens. The police have warned the FPI to stay calm and given the way the law has been greeted so far, the fundamentalists are going to have a hard time making it stick.

Provisions of the Bill

Article 29

Any person who manufactures, produces, duplicates, reduplicates, distributes, broadcasts, imports, exports, makes for sale, trades in, leases or makes available pornography shall be punished with a prison term of 6 months to 12 years and/or a fine of Rp250 million or Rp6 billion.

Article 30

Any person who makes available pornography …shall be punished with a prison term of 6 years and/or a fine of Rp250 million to Rp6 billion

Article 31

Any person who loans or downloads pornography…shall be punished with a maximum prison term of 4 years and/or a fine not to exceed Rp2 billion

Article 32

Any person who exhibits, possesses or stores pornography shall be punished with a maximum prison term of 4 years and/or a fine not to exceed Rp2 billion

Article 34

Any person who consents to be a pornographic object or model shall be punished with a maximum prison term of 10 years and/or a fine not to exceed Rp5 billion

Article 36

Any person who exhibits themselves or others in a performance…that contains nudity, sexual exploitation, coital acts or other pornographic content shall be punished with a maximum prison term of 10 years and/or a fine not to exceed Rp5 billion.