Indonesia's Islamic Thugs and Street Theatre

To this old rock and roller, Lady Gaga is so much rehashed packaging — decent looks, music I can’t distinguish from most current pop and a veneer of outrageousness that sells records and concert tickets and leads legions of people to identify themselves as her “Little Monsters.”

Fair enough. Madonna did it, Michael Jackson did it and now Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, 26, from New York City, does it as Lady Gaga. That’s show business. But the current flap over her June 3 concert in Indonesia, which apparently won’t happen because the National Police caved in to the even greater outrageousness of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), exposes deep problems in the country.

Lady Gaga may be the current queen of the pop music world but the FPI acts as king of an entire country simply on the basis of threats and bluster. It makes me think Lady Gaga and the FPI have something in common — they are both masters of grand theater.

Gaga, of course, knows she is play-acting for profit and that her strut is nothing more than a bid for fame and money. We are not so sure about FPI leader Habib Rizieq. Is he a sinister jester playing with fire in order to gain influence and fame? Or is the FPI really bent on turning Indonesia away from the path of modernity and toward a darker Islamist theocracy in which a tiny minority dictates the norms of what they call “culture” and the government simply cowers in fear?

Having set themselves up as a kind of shadow dictatorship able to wield enormous influence and defy the law at will simply through the threat of mob violence, the FPI represents a threat to the fabric of a country that in many ways is the envy of the world for its enormous potential, huge domestic market and tolerant traditions. If you are looking for “threats” to Indonesia, then lawless thugs seemingly backed by the police are a greater peril than a legion of self-promoting pop singers.

If you don’t like Lady Gaga, don’t listen to her music. But if you don’t like the FPI, they can be a lot harder to turn off.

This current episode put me in mind of the experience a friend of mine had with the FPI. A small businesswoman, let’s call her Rosi, opened a new hair salon in a small city in East Java and quickly ran into trouble.

Emboldened by an edict against beauty treatments from the East Java chapter of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the local FPI took to protesting at the salon, throwing rocks, calling the owner — who was seen as an outsider — a whore and threatening her with death. The staff of the small business was terrified and the shop almost shut down until Rosi got fed up.

She took to confronting the thugs and threatening them back, daring them to touch her. She finally went to a lawyer and did what many people have done when faced with the FPI: she negotiated a cash “settlement.”

“It did not cost that much and now they leave us alone,” she said. Her staff has been told to give cigarettes and soft drinks to the FPI street toughs who hang around the neighborhood.

It is sad to think that in order to conduct a legal business, Rosi had to give money to the FPI, but that is the reality for many people when confronted with this form of lawlessness.

As of this writing, we do not know if the Lady Gaga show will push through. There are apparently “negotiations” under way between the promoters and the police, and the “little monsters” may yet have their moment with the star.

What is clear is that one master showman, Habib Rizieq, and his own monsters are able at will to go after businesses, terrorize churches, harass women and oppress those who disagree with them all because they claim to speak for Indonesia in the name of one interpretation of Islam.

What needs to happen next is for the leaders of the police and the government to tell the FPI that their show is over. A nation thrives under the rule of law and the FPI has gone far past street theater to the point where it has become the threat.

(A. Lin Neumann, one of the founding editors of Asia Sentinel, is the host of BeritaSatu TV’s “Insight Indonesia.” This appeared in The Jakarta Globe.)