Movie Stars vs. Islamists

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The Weekly Standard
Sept 18, 2006

The Indonesian culture wars.

INDONESIA is currently embroiled in a high-stakes culture war between forces dedicated to Islamic law and more secular-minded citizens devoted to the freedoms and rights enshrined in the country’s constitution. While Islamic conservatives have made significant gains, the entertainment industry is emerging as a major arena of opposition to their highly restrictive vision for society.

This opposition is sometimes subtle, sometimes bold. One entertainer who positively courts political controversy is pop singer Inul Daratista, whose suggestive dancing has gotten her banned from several Muslim-dominated towns and earned her the ire of the Indonesian Ulemas Council. Meanwhile, singer Ahmad Dhani of the popular rock band Dewa has released several hit songs whose lyrics aim to undercut the allure of Islamic militancy among Indonesian youth.

One of the most fascinating figures to watch is filmmaker Joko Anwar, who views Indonesian filmmaking in a political context. “We always try to push the envelope,” he says, “either politically or on romantic things.” They often succeed.

Anwar first came to prominence as a screenwriter for the 2003 comedy Arisan!, which swept the national and international film awards and has been spun off into Indonesia’s top- rated TV sitcom. Arisan! (the word has no direct equivalent in English; it’s the name of a monthly female social gathering) challenged censorship laws established by dictator Suharto’s “New Order” regime, under which Islamic political activity was narrowly restricted. Since Suharto’s ouster in 1998, Islamic political movements have operated more freely–and they’ve learned to use the film censorship laws to promote Muslim mores.

While working on Arisan!, Anwar discovered a loophole in the ban of on-screen kissing: It prohibited kissing between a man and a woman. Anwar refashioned his script to center the movie around a likable gay character who falls in love and is ultimately accepted by friends and family. The resulting same-sex kissing scenes became a national sensation. As a political gesture, celebrities started jokingly declaring they were gay. The film censorship board subsequently tightened the law to cover same-sex kissing.

The board itself seemingly is motivated not by Islamic sentiments, but by fear of retribution from devout Muslims. In 2005, Anwar submitted his directorial debut, Joni’s Promise, to the censorship board with a modest male-female kissing scene. The board removed the scene and told Anwar this was for his own protection: They claimed the scene would cause the film to lose money because theaters showing it would be at risk of arson and Anwar would be attacked.

Anwar’s current project is arguably his most ambitious, and is a response to the rise of radicalism. “It’s getting pretty scary,” Anwar says, “because we don’t know what next they’ll say is wrong according to them.” He is convinced that the majority of Indonesians don’t share the Islamic movement’s values, but that the movement is gaining momen tum because, in any controversy, the radicals are always the most vocal.

This has been true since the early post-Suharto days, when criminal charges were dropped against a number of radical clerics, including the suspected head of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Bashir. At the local level, political Islam was fostered by violent militias; nationally, by such parties as the Prosperous Justice party (PKS), linked with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In making full use of the right to free expression enshrined in the constitution, the forces seeking to spread political Islam have succeeded in substantially undermining this right. With the PKS pulling strings in parliament and radical groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front operating on the ground in provincial cities outside of Jakarta, sharia has been adopted in Aceh territory, the city of Padang, and the Jakarta suburb of Tangerang. There are bold calls for the adoption of a national “anti-pornography” law that would constitute a de facto implementation of sharia by criminalizing public displays of affection between a husband and wife and legislating what women are allowed to wear.

Against this backdrop, Anwar is making a groundbreaking film called Dead Time, which is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: It’s a gritty movie about a future Indonesia that is balkanizing under the weight of dictatorial laws. Although the movie doesn’t specify what the oppressive laws are, it clearly targets current efforts to establish sharia.

“It’s going to be a noir film,” Anwar says of Dead Time, which is based on the prophesies of the twelfth-century figure Jayabaya, sometimes described as the “Indonesian Nostradamus.” Jayabaya predicted that Indonesia would go through a period of deep crisis before a leader would arise to reunite the nation and lead it into an era of peace and prosperity. Anwar says that Dead Time will deal with “who can be the one that Jayabaya predicted.”

Nick Grace, an Indonesian-language political commentator who met Anwar through Grace’s podcast, Global Crisis Watch, applauds the work of the Indonesian entertainment industry. “They are filling a role that the government should be playing: battling against extremism,” he says. “The filmmakers are directly in volved in this culture war. For now, the radicals may be winning the battles by paying people to rally for their causes, but the war will ultimately be won by the filmmakers whose films not only have staying power but are filling cinema seats.”

Indonesia is a critical bellwether in the long war against Islamic extremism because it is the world’s most populous Muslim country and has extremely porous borders. In practice, it has been home to a relatively moderate form of Islam, which is now being challenged. If Indonesian society is transformed into an authoritarian state governed by a strict version of Islamic law, the blow will be felt not only by the country’s entertainment industry, but also by all who cherish freedom.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior consultant for the Gerard Group International. His first book, My Year Inside Radical Islam, is due out in February 2007 from Tarcher/Penguin.

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