Indonesia's Artists vs. Muslim Extremists

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Adek Berry / AFP / Getty Images

Hundreds of Indonesian Muslims from Forum Umat Islam (FUI) shout slogans during a protest

As Balinese sculptor Nyoman Nuarta reviews a video of his giant sculpture of three women being defaced with spray paint by a group of angry fundamentalist Muslim activists in west Java last month and torn down, a haunting parallel comes to mind. "We need to start developing a way to counter this kind of Talibanization," says the artist, one of the most prominent sculptors in Indonesia. "This is a bad precedent for artists in this country."

The controversial 15-meter statue had been standing for several years at the entrance to a housing complex in Bekasi, on the outskirts of Jakarta, without any kind of protest, until a group calling itself the Forum Umat Islam, or Islamic Community Forum, decried it as a depiction of the Holy Trinity. "They also said it was pornographic," recalls a baffled Nyoman, adding that all the figures were wearing traditional sarongs. "None of the accusations made sense." Maybe not, but on June 18, under intense pressure from the group, who believe a campaign of Christianization is taking place in the town, the local administration dismantled the bronze statue that had taken more than a year to erect.

Tiga Mojang (Three Women) may not have been standing as long as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the 6th century stone sculptures in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, but the sculpture is not the first work of Indonesian art to have been attacked by religious zealots. In 2004, a work depicting scantily clothed Adam and Eve was condemned by religious groups as pornographic. The subjects that appeared in the mixed-media work, by painter Agus Suwage and photographer Davy Linggar, were intimidated, and it was then removed from an exhibition at the Bank Indonesia Museum in Jakarta. And perhaps the most notorious attack took place in 1985, when extremists bombed Borobudur, the 8th century Buddhist monument in Central Java that is widely regarded as one of the world's greatest architectural wonders.

For Nyoman and other supporters of the arts, the dismantling of the work portends an ominous future for the country, whose Muslim majority is generally regarded as moderate and accepting of other faiths, and another example of fringe groups like the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, being allowed to take the law into their own hands. "This is thuggery under the guise of religion," legislator Rieke Diah Pitaloka says bluntly. "And the people in power are just letting it happen." In June, Rieke was leading a small talk with constituents in the province of East Java when it was broken up by a local group of Islamist vigilantes who accused her of holding a meeting with clandestine Communist Party supporters. "They are trying to chip away at Pancasila by passing all of these Shari'a-based bylaws in various provinces," she added. Pancasila is the nation's basic philosophy rooted in five principles espoused by founding father Sukarno. "There is an effort to change the ideology of Indonesia."

Rapid urbanization and widespread unemployment have driven millions from the countryside to seek work in Jakarta and the surrounding suburbs, often changing religious dynamics in the affected communities. Bekasi is just one of the areas around the capital that is becoming more conservative and facing growing demands to pass Shari'a-based legislation to deal with the spread of gambling and prostitution and, in some cases, the perceived threat of Christianization. "In Indonesia we have a majority with a minority complex," explains Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. "They believe that Islam is being undermined by a more liberal environment that has allowed greater freedom of expression, including for minorities."

Whatever the underlying causes may be, critics of the latest attacks point to a common thread: the failure of the government to intervene. Indonesia has long had hard-line elements committed to Islamic law, whether it was the Darul Islam movement trying to establish an Islamic state in the 1950s or the Padri movement of the 19th century trying to abolish the matrilineal culture of west Sumatra. "The difference now is that there is an enabling environment," adds Anwar. "There are also political parties that share the same goal."

Rieke, who represents the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, has called on the government and police to take action and stop the momentum building among vigilante groups, whose members already number in the thousands around the country. "A moral movement is not enough," she asserts. "People need to speak up or else they too could become victims." Others are calling on civil society to get involved. "We need to use the incident in Bekasi to build an opposition," proposes Nono Anwar Makarim, a prominent lawyer in Jakarta. "The problem is much bigger than the statue."

With the giant statue still lying in pieces, there is little hope that it will be rebuilt or relocated. Still, few expect the nation's strong arts community to take any hit to their freedom of expression lying down. "Ultimately, Suharto wasn't able to stamp out the artists or controversial art, nor could the economic crisis of 1998," says Mikke Susanto, a lecturer at the Institute of Fine Arts in Yogyakarta, referring to the former authoritarian President of 32 years. "Today's extremists are dangerous but I think our artists will survive them as well."