What Playboy says about Indonesian society

Jakarta, Indonesia

The vendor skipped between cars and sidled up to my taxi like he had something to hide. Stuck in the midst of another traffic jam here, where cars barely move faster than a walking pace, I looked at what he was selling. From behind a stack of newspapers, he quickly whipped out a magazine wrapped in plastic and shoved it at me: Playboy. The cover showed an Indonesian woman who had not yet mastered the come-hither, girl-next-door Playboy prototype but looked more like a trashy waitress at a bad nightclub. But in her black teddy, she still wore far fewer clothes than you'd find on the covers of magazines in many Muslim nations. And this is a country where Islamic radicals have attacked bars and nightclubs and where the editor of Playboy was threatened and faced a court case, though she was ultimately acquitted. I had to buy a copy.

Inside, the magazine looked no more racy than GQ or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Articles offered long interviews, advice on cars and wine, but little of the explicit sex talk of its American counterpart. In the centerfold, an Indonesian woman posed in miniskirts and lingerie covering far more than the SI bathing suits.

But, leafing through the magazine, I realized that, for all its faults, which include rampant corruption, environmental mismanagement, and the continued threat of Islamic radicals, Indonesia seems to be getting it right. In the late 1990s, as the world's largest Muslim state transitioned to democracy, the political system collapsed into chaos. Despite the country's history of tolerance, fundamentalists seemed to be on the ascendance, traveling across the archipelago to fight with Christians, bombing churches, and launching madrasas and political parties. But just like Playboy, which seems to have developed a local model that fits Muslim sensibilities while embracing modernity, so too has Indonesia begun to find ways to embrace Islamic identity without embracing Islamism.


This change starts from the top. In the wake of numerous terrorist attacks over the past four years, the country's leading Islamic religious organizations, including the powerful Nahdlatul Ulama, have united with the government to reform the madrasa system, updating its curricula to include more secular subjects. Indonesian clerics also have devoted time to emphasizing the ways that Indonesians can express their faith--through social activism and youth groups, for example--without having to join radical parties or turn themselves into suicide bombers.

At the same time, Indonesia's political leadership, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY to most Indonesians) has not tried to force Islamic parties out of the political system. SBY has neither imposed restrictions on Islamic parties nor tried to stoke fear of them. But SBY also has refused an alliance with the Islamists, a tactic of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, who thought they could pick up conservative Muslim voters without having to do the hard work of addressing what conservatives want. In so doing, Musharraf and Khaleda Zia have risked making themselves prisoners of the Islamic parties' demands.

SBY, by contrast, seems to have realized that only a small number of Indonesians are truly committed to Islamic parties. The Islamists draw moderate voters for reasons other than their religious stance--their social organizations, their commitment to fighting poverty, their clean politics. So SBY has stolen their themes, making graft-fighting a central issue of his presidency (admittedly, with mixed success, given how entrenched corruption is in Indonesia), staying above scandal, and emphasizing that he will fight terrorism only within the country's laws and institutions (thereby preventing Islamists from accusing him of being a Western stooge in the war on terrorism).

Unfortunately, when Indonesia's Islamic identity conflicts with strict secular visions of democracy, Western nations do not know how to respond. For example, when militant preacher Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual advisor to the Indonesian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, was released from jail last year because the government could not prove he did more than inspire, Australia swiftly condemned his release and highlighted his radical views. Indeed, out of jail, Bashir quickly returned to his Islamist, anti-Western rhetoric. But that is his right, and it is up to Indonesian society--not its justice system--to marginalize his views. Australia's remarks made many Indonesians feel like Canberra did not respect Indonesia's legal process. Indonesian goodwill toward the United States for the massive American tsunami relief effort is also beginning to dissipate as the war in Iraq and the Bush presidency drag on, and America's visa policies make it difficult for many Indonesians to visit the United States. Last year, one Indonesian academic gave me an earful about why his elderly wife was prohibited from traveling with him to the United States, since she was somehow considered a security risk.


Western countries have much at stake in Indonesia. There are obvious economic and security interests. Indonesia is a major provider of oil and gas; it sits astride the Malacca Straits, probably the world's most important shipping lane; and it has become a canvas for potential China-U.S. rivalry. (Despite its own poor treatment of Muslim Uighurs, China maintains a relatively positive public image in Indonesia, partly because many Indonesians know little about China's Muslim population.) But it is also a place that seems to have found a balance--where a vendor can sell Playboy on the same street where, another day, I saw hundreds of devout worshippers headed toward the mosque for Friday prayers. That's pretty revealing.

By Joshua Kurlantzick