LAST week, a group that has been relatively low key in recent years grabbed headlines and caused puzzlement and apprehension across the region.
The Front for the Defence of Islam or FPI, after its Indonesian name, Front Pembela Islam, reasserted itself in Jakarta and sought to stem creeping debauchery in all its forms.
Of course, although the FPI guys rack up little victories here and there, the best they can hope to do is maintain the status quo.
And that, as any visitor to Indonesia will know, it is a pretty wild and wacky scene. Cities like Jakarta, Medan and Makassar often make Bangkok and Manila seem tame – which, in itself, is enough to explain the existence, longevity and fervour of the FPI.
Frankly, they get a bad rap. After all, their goal is merely to maintain a standard of communal behaviour consistent with the wishes of most Indonesians.
They receive tacit backing not only from religious leaders, but many top politicians, especially when they tackle critical national issues.
For instance, the FPI, with its 200,000-strong support base in Java and Sumatra, is at the forefront of protests against Israel and any interference by the United States in Indonesia’s internal affairs.
With the exception of some hotheads of the type found in any big organisation, they strive to meet their goals in a relatively civilised way. So the apprehension about them is overstated.
Yes, last week, they supported the jailing of Erwin Arnada, the editor of Indonesia’s version of Playboy, and they agitated about a local movie featuring the American porn star Tera Patrick.
These moves may seem excessive to Western sensibilities, but then removing the mermaid’s nipples on the Starbucks logo was just as extreme – and that was in America, not Indonesia.
Publishing an edition of Playboy, no matter how anodyne, in the world’s biggest Muslim nation was incendiary from the start.
The mere name Playboy signals nudity and sex, whether they actually appear or not. That is why the magazine’s founder Hugh Hefner effusively supported the venture.
And it is why the FPI lauded the supreme court’s decision last Tuesday to send Arnada to jail for two years because his magazine contained “soft pornography” for which he was responsible.
The law may be an ass, but you break it you get punished.
Likewise if you court controversy by making a movie in Indonesia featuring women noted for their pornographic prowess, you deserve little sympathy.
The disputacious movie in question, Rintihan Kuntilanak Perawan (The Groaning Virgin Ghost), starred the voluptuous Tera Patrick in a “straight” role.
But Google her name and get taken to graphic videos of hardcore sex.
And then try to suggest she was hired by the director purely for her thespian qualities and not for what her name symbolises.
No, the FPI is absolutely right to monitor such actions. And the group showed great tolerance in deciding, after seeing the film when it opened last Thursday, to defer campaigning against it.
When I interviewed FPI Secretary Jafar Shidiq in Jakarta, he said: “We fight against prostitution, gambling, corruption, pornography and drugs.”
Their modus operandi is to check out complaints about such activities, and if they prove true, to alert the police. Only then, if the police do nothing, will the FPI move into action.
Jafar, a high school physics teacher who loves McDonald’s, told me: “Prostitution and gambling are more radical than what we do. We only destroy places, they destroy the morals of a generation.”
He explained, calmly and rationally, that it was their duty to protect Islamic values – just as President George W Bush told me in the White House that he launched wars to guard American values.
So it is puzzling that the FPI guys are called “hardline” and even fanatical or terroristic. In fact, they are essential to keep a lid on the social cauldron that is Indonesia.