Indonesia, Democracy, and Playboy

Indonesia, Democracy, and Playboy

M. Din Syamsuddin, president of one of Indonesia's largest Muslim organizations, talks about the future of his country at UCLA.

I don't think the idea of an Islamic state will happen in Indonesia, at least in this century.

As much as he might like to, M. Din Syamsuddin, a professor of Islamic political thought at Jakarta's National Islamic University and alumnus of UCLA's doctoral program in political science, can't stop talking about Playboy.

That's because Syamsuddin is also president of Muhammadiyah, an Indonesian social organization that claims 35 million members, and vice chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulama. Both groups opposed a controversial, though comparatively timid, magazine launch.

The first edition of Playboy Indonesia, which went on sale in early April without any nude photos, was greeted by protests and violent attacks on its Jakarta editorial offices. Playboy's appearance has fueled an already heated debate over an anti-pornography bill that would ban poetry, drawing, writing, photos, or films "which expose the movement of certain body parts which are sensual" and would make kissing or suggestive dance in public a crime. Women who wear revealing clothes could be fined under the proposed law.

In a May 1, 2006, lecture at UCLA sponsored by the UCLA Centers for Near Eastern Studies and Southeast Asian Studies, Syamsuddin expressed optimism about the future of democracy in Indonesia. But the audience questioned him mostly about the bill and Playboy's foray into the archipelago country that is home to the largest Muslim population in the world.

Critics of the bill say its measures are steps towards an Islamic government and a threat to the minority cultures of Indonesia. Syamsuddin told the UCLA audience that Indonesians must study the bill carefully and that the traditional dress of ethnic groups like the Balinese, Papuans, and Javanese should not be criminalized. In March, Muhammadiyah held a meeting of community leaders both for and against the bill, in which some elements of the bill reportedly were rewritten. Muhammadiyah's goal is to "to play a mediating force" in the bill's drafting, Syamsuddin said.

While religious groups, including Muhammadiyah, are opposed to pornography and what they consider sexually suggestive dress and dance, the bill restricts the definition of porn to "exploitative behavior," according to Syamsuddin. It is important, he said, not to maintain an "open sky policy" with regard to "immoral behavior."

In January, when the Indonesian Playboy was still in the planning stages, Syamsuddin said he would rally religious leaders to protest the magazine. He told the news portal, "If they're not going to publish nude pictures, then change the name so it won't be associated with the original [Playboy]." On April 15, he criticized the government for not stopping the magazine from being distributed: "It's been a few days since the magazine appeared but the government has done nothing [to stop it]," he told the Jakarta Post.

'Neither Secular Nor Religious'

With 151 of its members holding seats in Indonesia's 500-member parliament, Muhammadiyah's political clout is substantial. But it is not a political party, and Syamsuddin at the talk downplayed its political dimension. Rather, he said, his organization and the 40 million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) represent moderate Islamic values.

"The two groups have played a considerable role not only as moderating force in Indonesia society, but also as the moral force that persistently strives for the betterment of social life," he said.

Meanwhile, the international press gives too much attention to radical groups such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and Jemaah Islamiyah—the latter believed responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings—that do not represent the majority of Indonesians, he said. The leader of FPI announced in April that the group would "go to war" with Playboy to force the magazine out of Indonesia. Syamsuddin said that these groups are by-products of the "political euphoria" that came with freedoms afforded by reforms in 1998 following the fall of the Suharto regime.

In spite of hardline groups, Syamsuddin said, Islam is a force for democratic reform, good governance, and conflict resolution in Indonesia. He argued that Islamic and democratic values are compatible and that the Indonesian state is "neither secular nor religious." His hope is "for the West to change their approach and paradigms" to see Muslims as friends rather than a threat and to see Indonesia as a strategic partner.

"I don't think the idea of an Islamic state will happen in Indonesia, at least in this century," he said.

Syamsuddin visited UCLA on a U.S. trip with stops at Ohio State University–Columbus, Ohio State University–Athens, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the US-Indonesia Friendship Association in Washington, D.C.

Published: Friday, May 12, 2006