Asia Life

Miss World 2013: Indonesia’s Religious Intolerance and Bikinis

The cultural clash over Miss World 2013 highlights the polarization of Indonesian society.

Picture this: women from 129 countries proudly strut across a stage before an audience of thousands, with millions more watching via television, beaming smiles and wearing tastefully chosen beachwear – including Southeast Asia’s mainstay, the sarong. If all goes according to plan, this will take place later this month at Miss World 2013 in Indonesia.

Now imagine this: more than 200 men and women convene in the streets of Jakarta, respectively wearing skullcaps and hijabs, raising banners and chanting slogans that call for the cancelation of this seemingly benign annual event on the grounds that it is an offense to Islam. Another 600 protesters gather in Yogyakarta, with goats in tow wearing Miss World sashes.

“Reject Miss World that exploits women” and “Go to hell Miss World” are but a few of the messages splashed across their hoisted banners that feature defaced images of Miss World 2012 Yu Wenxia of China. “Allah akbar!” they shout in unison as they stand outside the MNC Tower, where the event organizer’s headquarters is located.

Muhammad Al Khathath, a leader of the Islamic Society Forum, stirred the crowd’s sentiment further, yelling, “This is an insult and humiliation of women. Muslims should reject the Miss World contest.”

These two contrasting images reflect two competing social realities present across the 17,000-island archipelago, home to the world’s largest Muslim population and touted for its tolerance. The announcement that Miss World 2013 would take place on the predominantly Hindu island of Bali with other parts staged on the predominantly Muslim island of Java has whipped up hardline sentiment in a way that was last seen when Lady Gaga was forced to cancel the Indonesian stretch of her tour in 2012 following similar protests. Hardliners threatened to cause “chaos” in the event that the diva’s show went ahead.

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In June, Miss World organizers offered public assurances that bikinis would not be included. Event organizers have moved things forward reluctantly, and last Sunday the opening ceremony kicked off in Bali. In the face of mounting tensions over the pageant, the announcement was made on Saturday that the next stages of the pageant would also take place in Bali, instead of Jakarta where it was originally scheduled to move on September 20 and conclude on September 28.

“The changes are made in accordance with people’s aspirations and for the sake of Indonesia’s tourism development,’’ Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare Agung Laksono told reporters. ‘‘So the event will be held completely in Bali.’’

These cancellations and the Miss World venue change underscore a deeper tension in Indonesian society, between an extremist minority and a tolerant majority. On the one hand are the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and bombings at Jakarta’s stock exchange in 2000 as well as the city’s JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in 2009. In all of these attacks, Western tourists were killed, with the worst being the 2002 Bali blasts that left 162 international holidaymakers dead. The island nation’s porous borders, widespread corruption and extensive roster of separatist movements have fueled these troubling events.

On the other hand, Indonesia is often called a bastion of religious tolerance. In a controversial decision by the U.S.-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation (ACF), Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) was even awarded the World Statesman Award this year for his purported efforts to promote religious freedom. Even SBY himself acknowledged the reality that things have been less than serene on his watch.

In his acceptance speech for the World Statesman Award he said: “Pockets of intolerance persist. Communal conflicts occasionally flare up. Religious sensitivities sometimes give rise to disputes, with groups taking matters into their own hands.”

Despite attempts to downplay religious strife on the islands by politicians like Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, the Wahid Institute has released statistics that show religious intolerance rose to 274 in 2012, up from 267 in 2011. These cases stood at 184 in 2010 and 121 in 2009. The trend is troubling. Equally troubling is the fact that the Indonesian government has capitulated to a small, but vocal, hardline fringe. “They surrender to pressure from radical groups,” Azyumardi Azra, a prominent Muslim scholar from the State Islamic University in Jakarta, told The New York Times. “It sends a very bad signal.

The event’s organizer has pleaded with the Indonesian government to reconsider its decision to hold the entire event on Bali. Some 6,000 attendees have already booked flights and hotels rooms. Then there is the damage to Indonesia’s image as a travel hotspot.

Nana Patra, project director for programming and production the Indonesian media group that’s putting on the show said: “We want to show the world that Indonesia is a safe country with friendly people, and we want to show that Indonesia is not just Bali.”

The last minute cancellation of all proceedings in Jakarta has unfortunately garbled that message.