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A modesty proposal in Indonesia

A bill by a hard-line Islamic group defines pornography broadly. Foes say it would limit freedom of expression.

October 14, 2008|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — A beauty queen in a full-length evening gown is enough to make Abu Mohammed Jibril's blood boil.

Those bare arms and uncovered head. That cleavage. And don't get him started on the bikini portion of the show.

Miss Universe is disgusting pornography to the deputy head of Indonesia's Mujahedin Council.

"It's destructive," he said of the contest that airs here. "Miss Universe is very famous, so Muslim mothers want their daughters to be like Miss Universe and copy what they've seen.

"So all of these things, like Miss Universe, fashion shows, are degrading morality. They're all porn. A Muslim woman should not let her hair be seen by other people."

Jibril's council hopes a proposed anti-pornography law will put an end to what it sees as Western depravity. But religious and cultural minorities, artists, teachers and other opponents warn that the bill, which supporters hope will come up for a vote in parliament this week, threatens free expression in Indonesia.

The Muslim council is headed by Abu Bakar Bashir, who has been widely accused of being the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah, Al Qaeda's affiliate in Southeast Asia, a claim he denies. Still, his council shares Al Qaeda's sharp disdain for what Bashir and his followers consider Western moral pollution.

When worshipers answered the call to prayer at Jibril's Jakarta mosque on a recent afternoon, one young man arrived wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Osama bin Laden.

Jibril sat for an interview on a green prayer rug, behind the wooden lectern he uses for sermons. Vilifying immoral dress, loose sex and other social trends he sees as signs of social decay, he paused only for an occasional question -- and to answer the male voice reciting a verse from the Koran, which is his cellphone's ring tone.

To punctuate each point, he flashed his palms, fingers stretched wide in little starbursts around his white turban.

"It's not only drugs and criminals that are at the root of all the devastation of our younger generation, but also the culture of pornography," said Jibril. "That is why we find many husbands cheating on their wives, and many wives cheating on their husbands."

Indonesia's long debate over the anti-porn bill, which has gone through many revisions, is dividing a nation founded on principles that include "Unity in Diversity." The Muslim majority has long been known for respecting the rights of religious minorities. Although this is the most populous Muslim nation, women more commonly wear Western fashions than head scarves.

The proposed law casts a broad net for purveyors of smut. It defines porn as sexual material that includes photographs, cartoons, films, poems, vocalization, conversations and body gestures in the media, or in public shows, exhibits or performances.

Those that "arouse sexual propensity, desires or longings" or "contravene community ethics, decency or morality" would be criminal acts if the bill becomes law.

Producers of obscene material, which would include depictions of sexual intercourse, child pornography, sexual violence, masturbation and what is described as "allusions to nudity," would face up to 15 years in prison or a maximum fine equivalent to $1.5 million.

Distributors of porn, which also would include what the bill's drafters call racy advertising, could be sentenced to a maximum three-year prison term or a $500,000 fine.

Backers of the bill's provisions against the sexual exploitation of children, Internet porn and other, more conventional measures against indecency decry what they consider the overkill of the measure's more aggressive elements. The loudest opposition comes from the resort island of Bali, where Hindus are a majority and Western tourists exposing skin are part of the scenery.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters from around the country came to Bali to rally against the bill, which opponents say is a threat to minority cultures. To make their point, Papuan tribesmen danced wearing only traditional penis sheaths and body paint.

Bali Gov. Made Mangku Pastika raised objections to the bill in a letter this month to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Jibril discounts the governor's objections, which he says are to be expected from the leader of a province where "they gain income from allowing foreigners to shows their breasts, to get naked by the beach, to kiss on the lips in public." Jibril said he doubts the bill will pass because the government is a cabal of liars intent on prolonging the debate to manipulate voters. In the end, the politicians will side with minorities and Muslims will give up on peaceful protest, he said in what sounded like a veiled threat.

"There will be a time when Muslims are tired of holding these [mass protests] and then something unwanted can happen," he warned.

--

paul.watson@latimes.com

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