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In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. She was on the road and the high seas for a year, covering dozens of islands in 27 provinces. This site records photos and musings from that journey and beyond. See more about the project


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Indonesia's True Religion


Indonesia's True Religion, Luwuk, Central Sulawesi: Indonesia's Holy Trinity.

Luwuk, Central Sulawesi: Indonesia's Holy Trinity.



Indonesia's gone Gaga: Lessons in democracy

Moslem students rail against Lady Gaga's Indonesian visit

Indonesians ail against Lady Gaga's planned concert. Photo by Muhamad Solihin

I don’t like going to the dentist; I’m capable of inventing all sorts of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses for my inevitable last-minute foot-dragging. But as is so often the case, Indonesia’s reality outstrips my imagination. As I rocked up late for my regular check-up yesterday, I was able to lay the blame at the Satanically clad feet of Lady Gaga. My path to dental hygiene was blocked by Islamic groups trying to keep her out of the homeland. They included this group of young women, dressed in fashions imported wholesale from Saudi Arabia, waving posters saying: “Reject Cultural Invasion!”. No comment.

The Gaga Saga has been running for a while. Essentially, a minority of noisy radicals in Jakarta’s largely Moslem population think that Lady Gaga is the Devil. She promotes homosexuality and general licenciousness, apparently, and as for her backing dancers, well… Student groups, the good gentlemen of the FPI (the Islamic Defenders’ Front) and even some conservative Christians have been demonstrating against the concert, planned for June 6th. The police, widely accused for years now of fainting whenever the FPI sneezes, has shilly-shallied about whether to issue a permit for the concert. They’ve said they will if the Minstry of Religious Affairs and the Indonesian Council of Ulemas issue permits first. As if Lady Gaga were a bag of chips that needed to be certified as Halal.

Lots of people would like to big this up as another indication that Radical Islam is tightening its grip on Indonesia. I rather think it indicates exactly the reverse. Moderate Muslim groups as well as Gaga fans have added to Jakarta’s traffic jams with their own protests, underlining the importance of religious freedom in Indonesia. Bali has offered to host the concert. And the generally sensible Minstry of Tourism and Creative Industries has said the concert should go ahead.

Yes, militant Moslems shout disproportionately loudly in the public sphere in Indonesia. They probably get their way disproportionately frequently in consequence. But how does that differ from the disproportionate influence of militant Christians in the United States? Terrorising providers of reproductive health services in Tennessee is to my mind rather more damaging than terrorising providers of sexually inclusive pop lyrics in Jakarta. Indeed the Defenders of Gaga in Indonesia have been more vocal than the defenders of a woman’s right to reproductive self-determination in many parts of the States.

To my mind, Saga Gaga is a mark of how remarkably robust Indonesia’s democracy is [or maybe it isn’t: see UPDATE, below]. It is a reminder, also, of how very obtuse people can be when they prioritise the letter of the religious law over the principles that guide the faith. Without wishing to overstate her cultural importance, I think it is fair to say that Lady Gaga is a powerful advocate for inclusiveness. That seems to me entirely consistent with the core principles of most major religions, which acknowledge human frailty and try to address it with compassion. The thugs who would oppose Lady Gaga in the name of religion undermine that core. According to the Jakarta Globe, the FPI was handing out leaflets saying “Let’s crush liberals! Let’s fight gays and lesbians!”. Inclusiveness is not in their vocabulary. As for compassion…

The thugs are stupid at a more basic level, too; no promoter could hope to scrape up the publicity that they are providing for free. Indeed they’ve gone even further; they are underwriting her tour. FPI leaders proudly report that they have bought over a hundred tickets to see the show, should it go ahead. Not, you understand, because they are interested in seeing the Diva strut her stuff, but so that they can protect other concert goers from the damage that watching her might do. As I write, the fate of the concert is undecided. but I hope it goes ahead. I’m trying to imagine what someone as creative as Gaga could do with a set of stage costumes based on the burka.

***UPDATE***
On 27th of May, Gaga’s management said they would cancel the concert, because they didn’t want any harm to come to The Lady or her fans. I would not have predicted this; it makes me sick to my stomach for all the obvious reasons.

Equal Opportunity Kitsch

For the last few weeks, I’ve been in Maluku, formerly known as the Moluccas, famous for spices and inter-religious carnage. The hideous religious riots of 1999-2002 have left a deep scar on this part of the country. Whole communities were uprooted and there was a shift between islands as people who formerly lived perfectly happily with neighbours of another faith consolidated into single-faith blocks.

Needless to say, this makes me furious. I have never understood how people can grow to hate someone else because of who they choose to pray to, any more than I can understand hatred based on who people choose to sleep with. In the spirit of conciliation, therefore, I’m posting evidence that all religions in Maluku are equally adept at really kitsch religious art.

The Moslems in Banda Neira give us these Id-ul-Fitri wishes, complete with Arab style mosque and a Reggae Che Guevarra.

Che meets Bob Marley meets The Prophet in Maluku

At the Chinese cemetery, also in Banda Neira, we have a breastfeeding lion standing guard over the graves.

Chinese graveyard in Banda Neira, kampung Merdeka

Further south in Saumlaki, in the Tanombar islands, virtually every house has some icon or other to offer to the competition. This Jesus Sneezed fresco caught my eye.

Catholic kitsch in Saumlaki, Tanimbar

I am sad to say that the Protestants have done less to defend their title to kitsch, and I have little to offer on that score. At the risk of being accused of bias, I do think Maluku’s Catholics have made a more than adequate contribution that perhaps makes up for the slackness of the other Christians. This larger-than-lifesized statue commemorating the first Catholic baptisms of head-hunting “savages” in Tanimbar takes some beating.

More Catholic Kitsch. Baptism of the headhunting natives, Tanimbar, Indonesia


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