The show won’t go on. Lady Gaga this weekend announced that she is canceling a sold-out concert in Jakarta because of threats of violence from religious hard-liners. The gig, scheduled for June 3, was staunchly opposed by conservative Muslim groups, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), that earlier this month vowed to stop the “satanic” singer from setting foot on Indonesian soil. Some threatened to buy tickets and wreak havoc in the stadium. The police tried to derail the event by denying a crucial permit but quickly reversed its decision and promised to push ahead. Gaga’s camp backed out on Sunday, saying it couldn’t keep the singer or her fans safe. Salim Alatas of the FPI called it a victory for Indonesian Muslims: “Thanks to God for protecting us from a kind of devil.”
There has been much talk of devil worship, much hand-wringing and finger-pointing as the American pop star makes her way across Asia. Faithful Filipinos campaigned to ban the Born This Way Ball tour but settled for a small-scale protest. Concerned Christians in Seoul deemed her show pornographic, successfully pushing to make it an “adult-only” event. There has since been weeks of worrying about the corruption of Indonesian souls, so much so that the country’s Religious Affairs Minister, Suryadharma Ali, saw fit to comment on the canceled show. “I strongly believe this cancellation will benefit the country,” he offered. Entertainment should have “moral values.” We’d be foolish, though, to dismiss what’s happening in Indonesia as “kids these days” conservatism. What’s happening in Indonesia is far more worrisome and complex.
The world’s fourth most populous country prides itself on pluralism. When the 1997 Asian financial crisis triggered protests that helped topple the strongman Suharto, this majority-Muslim nation shattered the myth that Islam is antithetical to democracy. Many see Indonesia as a model for the postrevolutionary Arab world. But a permissive political climate has allowed extremism to fester at the edge of the moderate mainstream, giving rise to radical groups and religious vigilantes. Groups like the FPI hold outsize sway, particularly among provincial power brokers and, critics charge, the police. “The police and courts have proved they cannot handle these issues fairly,” Ismail Hasani of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace told AFP. “They’re often worried of a violent backlash if they punish hard-liners.”
The concert crackdown is just the latest in a string of oftentimes violent campaigns by radical groups acting in the name of Islam. Vigilante-style attacks on religious minorities are on the rise, rights groups say, and all too often, the aggressors go unpunished. The men found guilty of leading last year’s lynch-mob-style attack on members of the Ahmadiyah sect were scarcely punished. Earlier this month, Canadian author Irshad Manji and several of her colleagues were physically attacked by hard-liners at an event in Yogyakarta. Manji and her team were in town to promote her new book, Allah, Liberty and Love, which praises Indonesia as a peaceful, progressive society. “Four years ago, I [went] to Indonesia and experienced a nation of tolerance, openness and pluralism,” she wrote. “Things have changed.”
Meanwhile, the Gaga-as-Satan rhetoric has done little to stem the enthusiasm of the singer’s Indonesian fans, some of whom staged a flash mob in her honor. The Wall Street Journal notes that search queries for Lady Gaga have jumped fivefold in Indonesia since early May, with phrases like “Lady Gaga songs” and “download Lady Gaga” now topping query lists. History tells us that banning pop stars does little to dull their glow. Ignore them and they’ll fade away. The same can’t be said for the censors.