Islamic Hardliners Go After Bali Beauty Bash

Having already forced the Miss World Beauty Pageant to drop the bikini segment from their two-week 2013 show in Bali and Bogor to be held at the end of September, hard-liner Islamists are now trying to stop the pageant on Indonesia soil altogether.

The government in Jakarta is weighing a decision on whether to block the pageant, officials said.

"The government is still reviewing it while the regional administrations have supported it," Linda Agum Gumelar, the minister for women's empowerment and child protection, told reporters Tuesday. "We will also take into consideration the length of time that has gone into its preparation and the number of countries participating in the pageant."

In June, pageant organizers agreed to drop the famed bikini segment from the pageant in an effort to placate the hardliners, replacing the swimsuits with Bali's traditional long sarongs, despite the fact that hundreds of young women parade on historically laid-back Bali's beaches daily.

The flap over the pageant is the latest confrontation between a relatively small group of Islamists, chief among them the Islamic Defenders Front, known by their initials FPI, and a government seemingly too cowed or too preoccupied to do anything about them. The large majority of Indonesian Muslims are relatively tolerant and the capital Jakarta teems with miniskirt clad women. Many critics consider the FPI to be little more than violent thugs.

In addition to the FPI, the contest has drawn criticism from the Islamic People's Forum (FUI) and the more moderate Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI).

The pageant brings substantial money to the countries where it is held. The long-legged contestants hail from 130 countries across the planet during a two-week extravaganza designed to show off their manifold charms.

The attempt to crack down on the beauty contest is particularly ironic in 2013 in Indonesia, given the fact that top officials of the biggest Islamic political party, the Prosperous Justice Party, were arrested in a hotel room in Jakarta with a nude coed and cash alleged to be a massive bribe over import quotas for beef.

Officials of the Corruption Eradication Commission in January stumbled onto the personal aide to Lufthi Hasan Ishaq, the leader of the party, in a hotel room with the coed and a black suitcase containing Rp1 billion in cash, allegedly from a meat importer, Indoguna Utama, The aide said he had paid the young woman Rp10 million (US$1,010) to spend two hours with her.

Since that time, the KPK, as the corruption watchdog is known, has seized extensive property, including nine houses allegedly owned by Lufthi and a flock of cars.

There is no record anywhere that the Council of Ulema, the Islamic People's Forum or any of the other Islamic pressure groups have made any criticism of the Prosperous Justice Party officials.

In the meantime, in an effort to placate the Islamists, "We have been assured participants (in the Bali pageant) will not be required to wear bikinis. The participants will even wear Indonesian products," said Linda Gumelar. "However, at this time, we are still gathering public opinion," she said.

On Monday, Bali Governor I Made Mangku Pastika voiced his support for the event, arguing that it would present Bali and Indonesia in a positive light.

"What is wrong with the Miss World pageant? What are the reasons behind the protests and objections?" he asked.

"Participants will act in accordance with Balinese tradition and culture. The Miss World pageant will not bring any losses to Bali or Indonesia," he added, sentiments that were echoed by Gumelar in Jakarta on Tuesday. Instead, Pastika said, the event would boost Bali's, and by extension Indonesia's, international reputation and profile.

"We reject Miss World and immoral acts. We want to uphold shariah in Indonesia," said Muhammad Al Khaththath, the secretary general of the FUI, referring to Islamic law. He was not asked about the Prosperous Justice Party officials' antics.

On Tuesday, 200 people associated with various groups protested at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle and the MNC Tower, both in Central Jakarta. The tower belongs to media tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo, the owner of RCTI, a national television channel that will air the pageant. Some 150 police officers were deployed to monitor the protests.

Khaththath said that the protesters would continue their demonstrations on Friday and march from the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle to the MNC Tower, before going to the National Police headquarters in South Jakarta. The MUI said it opposes the event because exposing a woman's body violated Islamic teachings, according to an official.

The official said the decision by contest organizers to exclude the traditional bikini contest did not overcome the problem because the contestants would still have to wear tight dresses showing their figures.

Suryadharma Ali, Indonesia's minister of religious affairs, and Maneger Nasution, an official at the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), have also condemned the contest as not being compatible with Islamic teachings and for putting women's bodies on display.

Pastika dismissed concerns about the contestants exposing body parts normally required to be clothed according to Islamic regulation, saying it was illogical.

The vocal hard-line fringe has succeeded in getting over events cancelled in the recent past. Last year, US pop star Lady Gaga cancelled a concert in Jakarta after protesters threatened to burn down the venue.

(With reporting from the Jakarta Globe)