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The Indonesian Playboy Debacle

The Indonesian Playboy Debacle

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Published by Jonathan Zilberg
The Indonesian Playboy Debacle:
The Reaffirmation of Pluralism

Paper Presented at The 2nd SSEASR Conference of The South and Southeast Asia Association for the Study of Culture and Religion on Syncretism in South and Southeast Asia: Adoption and Adaptation. Mahidol University, May 25, 2007
The Indonesian Playboy Debacle:
The Reaffirmation of Pluralism

Paper Presented at The 2nd SSEASR Conference of The South and Southeast Asia Association for the Study of Culture and Religion on Syncretism in South and Southeast Asia: Adoption and Adaptation. Mahidol University, May 25, 2007

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Published by: Jonathan Zilberg on Jul 30, 2013
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The Indonesian Playboy Debacle:The Reaffirmation of Pluralism
Jonathan Zilberg, Ph.D.
Paper Presented at The 2
SSEASR ConferenceofThe South and Southeast Asia Association for the Study of Culture and ReligionOnSyncretism in South and Southeast Asia: Adoption and Adaptation
Mahidol University, May 25, 2007Introduction
Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that no proposed legislation has
caused greater debate in Indonesian society than last year’s attempts by the
House of Representatives to pass a draft anti-pornography bill
RUU-APP(Rancangan Undang Undang). Originally drafted in 1999, it represented asignificant evolution of the existent criminal code dating back to the Dutchcolonial era. Over the intervening years, the draft law has been shuffled back andforth within the House as different political groups bring it to the front of thelegislative agenda in different historical contexts. In its most recent incarnation, adraft bill was tabled in late 2005 and put on a fast track for confirmation by June2006. Had the bill been passed in the draft form, some argue that an effectiveshariaziation (Islamization) of Indonesian culture and law would have beenswiftly achieved. It is only within this larger context that the imbroglio over theIndonesian version of Playboy launched in 2006 can be understood.In essence, the stalled anti-pornography bill resulted in two importantunintended consequences. First, it resulted in
the resurgence of the state’s
commitment to the ideology of national unity known as Pancasilla. Second,formerly reactionary emergent forces moderated their positions at the same timethat it became obvious that political opportunists were exploiting theintroduction of sharia legislation for short term political ends. One position incivil society is that both political Islamists and conservative mainstreampoliticians and legislators were attempting to enforce changes in normativecultural practices without an awareness of the long term consequences of thedanger of legislating a fundamentally conservative agenda. In this, conservativescame together to promote a cultural reformation through introducing legal codes
to outlaw all forms of erotic expression without apparently taking into accountthe extent of the local resistance to imposing such an agenda upon the nation.Though opposition to the bill got off to a slow start, as the greater public,the mass media and the main political parties became increasingly aware of theconsequences that the bill would have, opposition eventually mounted to suchan extent that the bill became the focus for a cultural struggle for whatconstitutes Indonesian national identity. The virulent attacks on Playboy and thecourt case charging the editor for producing and distributing pornography, andsubsequently the models for obscenity, became an inseparable component of thelarger context within which the anti-pornography bill eventually foundered.Ultimately, the debate resulted in a recommitment to the by then largelymoribund national ideology of Pancasila
 , the state’s plural charter
. By the end of2006, the pendulum had apparently swung slowly back to the center that istowards a respect for pluralism and the rule of law which was being seriouslyeroded in the latter half of 2005 and early 2006. The result of this was that it could be said that the unfolding debate and eventual shelving of the bill demonstratethat the democratic process in Indonesia has considerably matured in a few shortyears.What looked like a debacle in the first half of 2006, considering the forceand rapidity with which a draconian bill against all forms of sensual expressionwas being moved through the House of Representatives, turned into a testamentto the health of civil society. The events demonstrated both the freedom of thepress in the post-Soeharto era and the degree to which a conservative Muslimidentity is increasingly taking hold. Yet conversely, they also highlight theinnately liberal, tolerant and plural nature of Indonesian society. The mostcompelling aspect of the debate was the sharp about-face which took place afterthe initial demonization of pluralism and liberalism by conservative forces whichhad been intensifying all through 2005. In addition, the debate brought the issuesof gender and interpretation to the forefront of national consciousness,stimulating a lively debate in all reaches of civil society. Gradually, it is bringingcritical attention to bear on the erosion of the authority of national law and theideology of Pancasila which is occurring through the enactment of district andregional regulations instituting various aspects of
law. Ultimately, it ispossible that this could spread to such an extent that it could generate aconstitutional crisis.Most significant of all, the fears many observers had that the unfoldingcultural crisis represented a rapid rise of a reactionary form of politicized Islamproved to be unfounded. Indeed, the state and the most powerful moderateMuslim organizations eventually came to re-assert the central importance ofpluralism, the syncretic nature of Indonesian Islam and the bedrock basis of the
state in the ideology of the principle of
. Though emerging Islamistparties and pressure groups very effectively used the anti-pornography bill andthe Playboy debate to massively advance their agenda in the public eye, thistactic ultimately called their legitimacy
to speak for the “moral Muslim majority”
 into question. Mainstream forces finally rose to the occasion and reasserted thecentral tenets of the plural nature of modern Indonesian national identity
unityin diversity
and of-course, faith in God with animist populations pointedlyexcluded.No other debate in years has crystallized the positions people in Indonesiahave over Western versus Eastern values, over globalization and the so-calledclash of civilizations. The simplest interpretations have imagined the Playboyand pornography debate to be an issue of controlling the so-called moral decayof the nation due to exposure to foreign ideologies and media content. Yet theissue is surely better understood as a common cultural struggle betweenconservative and liberal ideologies. It is constantly occurring in all nations butexacerbated by globalism, the increasing power of the media and unparalleledaccess to images and information as well as the instability and crisis in the worldsystem. The Indonesian case presents a special instance.
The Context
The larger shifts in the political and historical climate energized thisdebate. The increasingly conservative environment and sense of empowerment yconservatives set the parameters within which people understood the Playboydebate and from which they reacted and in cases acted. 2005 was the year inwhich the post-911 conflict situation came to assert its reality in Indonesia withthe two Bali bombs. The state seems to have found itself in an uncomfortableposition with a rising sense of a conservative Islam, increasingly vocal anduncontrolled radicalism and an apparent hesitancy to assert control over para-statal thug elements. At the same time, seccessionist tendencies were beingresolved through granting limited regional autonomy. Moreover, violence in thecenter and the margins was largely dissipating except for not infrequent andsometimes spectacular if largely isolated incidents or the regionally limitedspecters of inter-religious or sectarian violence such as in Poso and East Timor.This was also a period in which
were issued by the Council of IndonesianUlemas (MUI) against pluralism and liberalism and these broad contexts set themain frame for the unfolding pornography debate.By the middle of 2006 and increasingly towards the end of the year, theinitial heat began to subside as the state and the main political parties andespecially the largest Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and

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