The Indonesian Playboy Debacle: The Reaffirmation of Pluralism
Jonathan Zilberg, Ph.D.
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 Introduction 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 a significant evolution of the existent criminal code dating back to the Dutch colonial era. Over the intervening years, the draft law has been shuffled back and forth within the House as different political groups bring it to the front of the legislative agenda in different historical contexts. In its most recent incarnation, a draft bill was tabled in late 2005 and put on a fast track for confirmation by June 2006. Had the bill been passed in the draft form, some argue that an effective shariaziation (Islamization) of Indonesian culture and law would have been swiftly achieved. It is only within this larger context that the imbroglio over the Indonesian version of Playboy launched in 2006 can be understood. In essence, the stalled anti-pornography bill resulted in two important unintended 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 time that it became obvious that political opportunists were exploiting the introduction of sharia legislation for short term political ends. One position in civil society is that both political Islamists and conservative mainstream politicians and legislators were attempting to enforce changes in normative cultural practices without an awareness of the long term consequences of the danger of legislating a fundamentally conservative agenda. In this, conservatives came together to promote a cultural reformation through introducing legal codes
to outlaw all forms of erotic expression without apparently taking into account the 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 the consequences that the bill would have, opposition eventually mounted to such an extent that the bill became the focus for a cultural struggle for what constitutes Indonesian national identity. The virulent attacks on Playboy and the court case charging the editor for producing and distributing pornography, and subsequently the models for obscenity, became an inseparable component of the larger context within which the anti-pornography bill eventually foundered. Ultimately, the debate resulted in a recommitment to the by then largely moribund national ideology of Pancasila, the state’s plural charter. By the end of 2006, the pendulum had apparently swung slowly back to the center that is towards a respect for pluralism and the rule of law which was being seriously eroded 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 demonstrate that the democratic process in Indonesia has considerably matured in a few short years. What looked like a debacle in the first half of 2006, considering the force and rapidity with which a draconian bill against all forms of sensual expression was being moved through the House of Representatives, turned into a testament to the health of civil society. The events demonstrated both the freedom of the press in the post-Soeharto era and the degree to which a conservative Muslim identity is increasingly taking hold. Yet conversely, they also highlight the innately liberal, tolerant and plural nature of Indonesian society. The most compelling aspect of the debate was the sharp about-face which took place after the initial demonization of pluralism and liberalism by conservative forces which had been intensifying all through 2005. In addition, the debate brought the issues of gender and interpretation to the forefront of national consciousness, stimulating a lively debate in all reaches of civil society. Gradually, it is bringing critical attention to bear on the erosion of the authority of national law and the ideology of Pancasila which is occurring through the enactment of district and regional regulations instituting various aspects of sharia law. Ultimately, it is possible that this could spread to such an extent that it could generate a constitutional crisis. Most significant of all, the fears many observers had that the unfolding cultural crisis represented a rapid rise of a reactionary form of politicized Islam proved to be unfounded. Indeed, the state and the most powerful moderate Muslim organizations eventually came to re-assert the central importance of pluralism, the syncretic nature of Indonesian Islam and the bedrock basis of the
state in the ideology of the principle of Pancasila. Though emerging Islamist parties and pressure groups very effectively used the anti-pornography bill and the Playboy debate to massively advance their agenda in the public eye, this tactic ultimately called their legitimacy to speak for the “moral Muslim majority” into question. Mainstream forces finally rose to the occasion and reasserted the central tenets of the plural nature of modern Indonesian national identity – unity in diversity – and of-course, faith in God with animist populations pointedly excluded. No other debate in years has crystallized the positions people in Indonesia have over Western versus Eastern values, over globalization and the so-called clash of civilizations. The simplest interpretations have imagined the Playboy and pornography debate to be an issue of controlling the so-called moral decay of the nation due to exposure to foreign ideologies and media content. Yet the issue is surely better understood as a common cultural struggle between conservative and liberal ideologies. It is constantly occurring in all nations but exacerbated by globalism, the increasing power of the media and unparalleled access to images and information as well as the instability and crisis in the world system. The Indonesian case presents a special instance. The Context The larger shifts in the political and historical climate energized this debate. The increasingly conservative environment and sense of empowerment y conservatives set the parameters within which people understood the Playboy debate and from which they reacted and in cases acted. 2005 was the year in which the post-911 conflict situation came to assert its reality in Indonesia with the two Bali bombs. The state seems to have found itself in an uncomfortable position with a rising sense of a conservative Islam, increasingly vocal and uncontrolled radicalism and an apparent hesitancy to assert control over parastatal thug elements. At the same time, seccessionist tendencies were being resolved through granting limited regional autonomy. Moreover, violence in the center and the margins was largely dissipating except for not infrequent and sometimes spectacular if largely isolated incidents or the regionally limited specters of inter-religious or sectarian violence such as in Poso and East Timor. This was also a period in which fatwas were issued by the Council of Indonesian Ulemas (MUI) against pluralism and liberalism and these broad contexts set the main frame for the unfolding pornography debate. By the middle of 2006 and increasingly towards the end of the year, the initial heat began to subside as the state and the main political parties and especially the largest Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and
Muhamadiyah began to increasingly reaffirm their commitment to the plural charter of the nation and to the need for moderation and tolerance. Preceding this, the outspoken cultural radicals, most visibly the FPI (Front Pembela Islam, Islamic People’s Front) and the FBR (Forum Betawi Rempug), through tactics of intimidation, violence and public expression of a face of radical intolerance achieved a sense of local and national importance far in excess of their numbers, sustainability or arguably even their relevance to mainstream Indonesia. It was a year and a half of living not-so-dangerously yet it was one of intense agitation. Huge demonstrations were marshaled against pluralism and liberalism through attacking Playboy as an icon or key symbol of moral decay and threatening Western values. Beginning with the law suits against painters who had exhibited in the Jakarta Biennale, a series of dockets were opened by the police as the FPI brought charges against the offending individuals. Even Miss Indonesia was charged for appearing in a swim suit in the Miss World Pageant in Warsaw. At the same time, the bill itself and the process of deliberations came under increasing scrutiny generating constant attention in the national media. The Playboy case soon came to the attention of the international media. Fortunately for the plural imperative, the editor of Playboy was acquitted of violating the obscenity laws in May of this year. As of yet there has been little or no reaction from the FPI or FBR or anyone else for that matter. In terms of the imagination of nation, perhaps 2006 will be seen as the year of the Playboy debate, just as 2005 had been the year of the Bali bombs. Interestingly enough, the sequence of events in Indonesia in which law suits began to be filed against painters, musicians models and editors for religious reasons was initiated by Hindu pressure groups who believed that their religious beliefs and icons were being slandered in popular songs and works of art. While it is not yet known if the FPI were inspired by this, certainly all over the world, conservative pressure groups were increasingly turning to the law to fight cultural battles. Thus when in late 2005, Playboy Indonesia announced the forthcoming launch in which Indonesia became the second secular but largely Muslim country to launch the brand, that is, after Turkey, the FPI had already geared up for the battle. Despite assurances from the publisher to the Press Council and the pressure groups that there would be no nudity, the law suit was filed immediately and the stage was set to test the pornography law. In doing so, conservative forces upped the ante on the draft revision which had been strategically prepared for fast track passage through the House of Representatives (the DPR) and into law in that once approved by the House, Presidential approval is largely a matter of formality. The coming months were a fascinating period for the ensuing developments in cultural politics and lively
public debate and protest, the proliferation of law suits and other tactics of intimidation, slurs and threats and in cases overt violence and the destruction of property. Yet Playboy Indonesia was so tame as to become the laughing stock of those interested in local erotica. Fortunately, the pressure forced it to become a beacon of liberal intellectual expression and elitist consumer culture. This was best exemplified with the publication of the last ever interview with Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the fabled author of The Buru Quartet, a proposed Nobel laureate jailed for his communist leanings and a committed atheist -- to his death, the subject of the interview being the Playboy debacle. Consequences What makes The Indonesian Playboy Debacle (or what could be termed The Porno Debate) so interesting are not the obvious issues over representation and normative Islamic values and strictures, nor the heat generated in the mass media, on the street and in the behind the scenes politics at the House of Representatives. What makes it so interesting is the scale and range of the issues which were raised by the debate. In time, no doubt, it will stimulate a slew of academic studies which will analyze the issues from various perspectives depending on one’s personal and academic inclinations. The list of some of the potential avenues to explore is extensive. The following order in no way assumes a hierarchy of significance, merely being an attempt to set in place a series of beacons for future research. There is an ancient conflict at hand over interpretation whether it be in regard to the meaning of sacred texts or what amount of flesh and what types of behavior and representation constitute the pornographic. There is the question of whether shadow forces are using political Islam and funding radical pressure groups to achieve short and long term political goals. In all this, one finds that civil society is surprisingly healthy and indeed energized and that a remarkably free media has emerged from a society long held within the grips of a history of an essentially totalitarian if incompletely dominant feudal political order. There currently would appear to be a vibrant democratic process at work which simultaneous supports the undermining and strengthening of pluralism and the power of an ever expanding Islamist moral majority. Interestingly enough, the ultimate consequence perhaps of the Playboy debate is that there has been an unexpected return of the Soeharto period nationalist ideology of Pancasila. In addition, an expanded awareness has emerged of the dangers of allowing for a culture of impunity. Consequently, there has been a gradual recognition by the state of the need to monitor and to some degree seemingly reign in uncontrolled security threats and divisive forces.
An explicit recognition now exists of the scale of moderate voices effectively silenced through the fear of being labeled "against Islam." In this, the typical reluctance of the mainstream largely tolerant and liberal majority to demonstrate and become politically active is as pronounced in Indonesia as anywhere else. Nevertheless, the more moderate voices in the largest Muslim organizations finally rose to the challenge in the face of the polarization of their communities. Led by former President Abdurahman Wahid, affectionately known as Gus Dur, and supported by Din Samsuddin, the head of Muhammadiyah, they asserted the supreme virtue of the requirement for tolerating pluralism and the fact that erotic expression broadly defined and sensual display do not constitute pornographic acts in Indonesian culture. Very recently, even the most conservative organizations such as the Prosperous Justice Party (the PKS) came to endorse pluralism, throwing in the towel as they jockey for power in the run up for the elections next month for the Jakarta governorship. In essence, “the porno debate” instead of serving as a foil for a blanket Islamization of the nation’s normative daily practices served as a forceful reminder of its openness. The debate reaffirmed Indonesia’s inescapable and enriching cultural diversity speaking to centuries of syncretism and Tantric tendencies. Moreover, it even highlights the undoubtedly unpleasant fact to humanists and relativists, that the nation’s animists and atheists constitutionally continue to have no rights being considered outside of the pale of civilization. Perhaps the most unexpected and probably unwanted result of the temporarily failed legislation was a vastly increased public knowledge of the amount of erotic and even pornographic material available. More than ever before the public is aware of the normality of eroticism, of the availability of pornography and what is now known of as porno-action. Indeed, people are now more open about discussing the rampant scale of illicit sexual activity in Indonesian society. The Bold and the Beautiful, Cosmopolitan, Bollywood, erotic dangdut dancing, the right to bare arms, the seductive call of luscious bellies, the Papuan penis sheath, all this and more, are safe for now. Prices have spiked for veiled prostitutes and for those long legged Menteng “girls” who look too good to be true. Artists have been emboldened to creatively explore the boundaries of the erotic and the pornographic, and best of all, women activists have hardened to their struggle. Simply put, people are more aware than ever before of the salacious content to be found throughout the mass media such as the detailed description of the milder material such as in Vogue as how to perform “yummy hand jobs”. Men and women, and even children, are more aware than ever before of the issue of the commoditization of diverse sexualities, of the pleasures and pitfalls and especially of the dangers posed by the attempt to legislate eroticism in the
public sphere. Yet the conservative wave, though subsided, is swelling in the deep while closer to the shore, women activists and legislators and those in civil society at large, have become acutely aware of the urgent need to draw national attention to far more important issues. It is violence against women (VAW), human trafficking and the links between these human rights violations and poverty and patriarchy which should be the issue – not Playboy, that is – if you are a liberal. Circling the Center Not to trivialize the debate but to bring it back to one of the sources or sparks behind the conflict, one needs to keep in mind the sudden animosity which emerged in late 2005 towards the most virile of all forms of Indonesian erotic expression and arguably its most popular art form – dangdut. Indeed, the porno debate only rose to the surface to become a hot issue after Rhoma Irama’s jealously defamed and demonized his competitor -- the Queen of the drill dance, ngebor dangdut, charismatic icon Inul Daratista. Moreover, the cultural struggle began in earnest, or so it seemed to me, after President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono’s subsequent televised expression of moral outrage against the public display of women’s bellybuttons. Yet in the course of the unfolding cultural crisis, Indonesia’s healthy and ancient sense of sensuality and expression has reasserted itself -- in spite of the ever increasing use of the jilbab. At night, for the last few weeks (before being replaced yesterday by an advertising for multiple foreign brands) this victory was lit up, immense against the skyline. There, set against the phallic superstructure rising into the dark and smoky night, the new Indonesian Shopping Village overlooking the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle where many of the demonstrations for and against the anti-pornography bill were held, was a sky high image of an Oriental femme fatale. Half-dressed in lovely flowing and revealing sheer colorful silk, this Indic beauty, half-smiling, seductive, lounged languid over the traffic slowly moving up and down Jalan Sudirman. I can still clearly visualize her sinuous snaky flesh, her gorgeous belly revealed to all. Indeed, the natural center has been stabilized. And if that is not enough, at the other end of Jalan Sudirman, at Block M, Paris Hilton is still free, and high -- up there, for a while, having replaced the former Femina advert celebrating the fun and “fearless women” in a daringly low cut dress. Tonight in Bangkok, all this brings me back to that day watching the launch of Brooke’s Bedroom Secret on The Bold and The Beautiful with my matriarchal Padang relatives and how I just love to shout “haram” (forbidden) every time the kissing starts. And do keep in mind, that in the draft legislation, one could have gone to jail for a lot longer for kissing in public than for killing a
judge. Whither goes the pendulum in the decades to come, no one can tell, but I for one was ecstatic when on television for the first time since 2005, on Saturday night, May the 5th 2007, Inul finally made a come back on national television to the nation’s delight. On the broadest level, a view of civil society has been reinforced in which it is recognized by the state and society at large that even the margins have to be continued to recognized in the center -- even if these cultural practices fall completely outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior in a conservative Islamic context. Yet in all this, conservative forces and attitudes have been empowered and mainstream conservative tendencies continue to manifest themselves in the jilbab revolution. Therein, creeping sharia is clearly an element in the legislative landscape as the decentralization process empowers local and regional governments. Yet it is fascinating that the process is largely driven by political rather than religious interests and that a constitutional crisis may well be emerging in which state law is effectively being violated at the local level without any oversight. Thus though the laws enshrining pluralism are arguably being negated at the local level in the name of shariazation, albeit it in relatively isolated but already numerous instances, the precedents are being set at both district and regional levels for a national cultural Islamic reformation. While alarmists see this process of enacting and enforcing sharia law as the thin edge of the wedge, others, either less concerned or believing in the democratic right to advance and ultimately institute this agenda as the will of the moral majority, see this process as either positive or as not a serious threat to Indonesian culture as we know it. It remains to be seen how reformists will use these laws, how activists will protest and work against them or around them and how women will be either be increasingly oppressed or protected by these new laws. It will be fascinating to study how the political, legal and cultural landscape develops in this transformative period. In all this, the inherent tension between conservative and liberal agendas necessarily continues, the plural tapestry woven, unwoven and rewoven. Ultimately, one finds a flux in the power of the state as it variously responds or fails to respond to vigilantism. Herein there is an ambiguous situation playing out with both cause for optimism and concern. The Playboy Debate, the acquittal of the editor and the failure of the passage of the antipornography bill confirm that in certain high profile cases due legal process can achieve justice according to the law, that is, an independent judiciary does exist to some degree. Nevertheless, there has been a contradictory tendency for the state to support rather than constrain the Islamist agenda through inaction and or a slowness to act decisively to uphold either the law or the constitution.
As is typical in Indonesia, the situation can be complex and obscure, and even unexpected and contradictory. For instance, Rammadan 2006 was most unusual in that there was a wholly unexpected reduction of extortion and mob violence typical by extremist forces during those months. One can only imagine that they had been reigned in. In addition, the year revealed a series of increasingly well orchestrated activities by the FPI which ultimately appeared to have resulted in its incorporation into the FBR and the coalescence of multiple reactionary forces. In all this, we see perhaps the use of such organizations by shadow forces and the link between civil unrest and money politics rather than ideological drives. Only future research will be able to map out the full extent of such fascinating unfolding political histories in which it seems that underworld and statist forces conspire while moderates struggle to center the pendulum. Conclusion In the final analysis, the unrest over Playboy and the issue of pornography revealed a great deal about street level politics, the consolidation of democratic practices and larger debates over Islamic values in society and thus where the nation is or is not and where it should or should not be going. For instance, one of the most contentious issues to emerge from the debate was a conflict over attitudes towards polygamy in Muslim society. The result was substantial collateral damage to the conservative agenda in the polygamy blowback after the downfall of the formerly enormously popular Muslim preacher A'a Gym when he married a second younger wife after having preached against polygamy previously. Above all, it was the women who abandoned him en masse. And then there was the scandal around the adulterous legislator tasked with leading the DPR’s morality commission after his jilted girlfriend released the cell phone video of the two of them cavorting naked in a hotel room, an sms video which became one of the hottest items in Menado cyber-space in years. In all this contention however, the serious issues of 2006 which should have been the national focus for those concerned with morality should have been human trafficking, violence against women and poverty alleviation through the economic, civic and political empowerment of women. Lastly, there is the larger story of the symbolic importance of Playboy as a brand representing American liberalism. It is possible to argue that the entire debate was in essence a reaction to the brand as an icon of American progressiveness. Essentially then, the whole debate speaks as much to issues of identification with brands and globalization as to an imagined clash of civilizations. Whichever direction one prefers to push the pendulum in, there is no shortage of pornography and porno-action in Indonesia however you define it. And however one defines pornography,
Playboy Indonesia is so tame as to have become the brunt of a well known local joke that yes indeed, the magazine should have been taken to court – for fraud!