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Protests Roil Muslim Nation of Indonesia

February 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


IAN WILLIAMS: The opening of a new art gallery in south Jakarta draws some of the city’s leading artists and writers — one face of the liberal and open Islam most people practice here, but which is increasingly under assault from hard-liners.

Here, they’re not particularly bothered by those cartoons, but they are worried that it provides ammunition to those out to curb freedom of expression. A proposed new anti-pornography law, parodied here, would go as far as banning kissing in public.

JOKO ANWAR, Scriptwriter: It’s not just a challenge to the tradition, what is going on in Indonesia with the liberalism and everything – things that challenge the democracy in the nation because a small group of people think that it’s bad – but us – many people – the majority – think it’s okay.

IAN WILLIAMS: There have been rowdy protests outside the Danish embassy, prompting the ambassador to urge Danish citizens to leave the country. Though in reality, protests in the world’s most populous Muslim country have been pretty small and roundly condemned by moderate Islamic leaders.

IAN WILLIAMS: So it is an overreaction, in your view?

ABDURRAHMAN WAHID, Former President, Indonesia: Yes, yes, not only our reaction but counterproductive reaction. Now people will see that the Muslims are important.

IAN WILLIAMS: The protests have been organized mostly by small but vocal hard-line groups, with little sign of the sort of official sponsorship suspected elsewhere.

Generally, the protests here have been smaller and calmer than elsewhere. The biggest impact may be political, playing into the hands of conservative Islamic forces already resurgent.

IAN WILLIAMS: Those groups have been devoting their energies to a sweeping new anti-pornography law, so broadly written that it would ban any public display of affection and make it an offense to show what it calls sensual body parts, including hips and thighs.

A difficult time, all the same, for you?

ERWIN ARNADA, Filmmaker: Yes, it is a very difficult time for the filmmakers, publisher, and anything, it is a very, very difficult time.

IAN WILLIAMS: Erwin is filming a movie, Jakarta Undercover, a look at the dark side of city nightlife. If the new law is passed, it might never be shown, though that’s not his only headache.

Erwin’s also the editor-in-chief of the proposed new Indonesian edition of Playboy that’s also provoked angry protest. No Indonesian newspaper has published the cartoons, but the controversy has rattled newspaper editors locked in a constant struggle to maintain press freedom.

ENDY BAYUNI, Chief Editor, The Jakarta Post: There are people out there wanting to reinforce some kind of control on the media, and so this cartoon controversy is actually giving more fuel to those people.

IAN WILLIAMS: Indonesia still tolerates a rich kaleidoscope of lifestyles and opinions, but that moderate tradition is locked in a fierce battle with conservative Islam, and the cartoons, published by many in Europe in the name of free speech, has not helped those fighting for that cause here.