No Hearts and Flowers in Islam

Published on Asia Sentinel

Indonesia’s conservative Muslim party abandons Valentines to woo voters

Indonesia’s most conservative Islamic party, briefly considered wooing young voters politically for upcoming national elections with chocolates and flowers on Valentine’s Day before pulling up short and abandoning the plan in the mistaken idea that the holiday is “too Jewish.”

The PKS, whose name in English is the Prosperous Justice Party, has had a difficult time “finding a formula to reach” more liberally-minded young voters, a party member, Mujtahid Rahman Yadi acknowledged. So it decided on the affectionate approach – Valentine’s gifts attached to stickers bearing mug shots of their candidates for Indonesia’s April legislative elections.

The romantic plan to use hearts and flowers to attract voters was dreamed up by the same party that pushed through a controversial anti-pornography law in the country last year, banning acts that “violated public morality” and “incited sexual desire”, (which, until some late revisions, would have included bikinis in Bali).

The anti-pornography law is now partly being used by a PKS member as a basis to ban Jaipongan, a swaying, sensual dance derived from a village ritual music adapted after the late President Sukarno banned rock ‘n roll in 1961. Ahmad Heryawan, the PKR governor of West Java province, has ordered local dancers to quit swiveling their hips.

“We are only accommodating the opinion of the public, which feels uncomfortable with such shows,” Herdiwan Iing Suranta, the head of the province’s culture agency, was quoted as saying. He added a simple request: “We are urging artists not be ‘too attractive’.”

The ban on the traditional dance took place in the same province where the Valentine’s wooing campaign was born. But a day after the love-for-votes plan was announced this week, high-ranking members of the PKS quickly put a stop to the Valentine’s nonsense.

The plan had been aborted “because [Valentine’s Day] is related to Jewish culture,” the PKS’ chairman, Tifatul Sembiring, was quoted as saying in the local press on Tuesday. “We would never celebrate anything that is not in line with Islamic culture.”

That would be news to the original Valentinius, a Roman Catholic priest said to have been arrested for marrying Christian couples and ultimately beaten with clubs, stoned, and eventually beheaded for trying to convert Emperor Claudius II to Christianity.

Nonetheless, the quote is a good indication of the party’s political game plan: push policies dressed up as ‘Islamic’ to win votes. Some see its success in the country’s provinces as an indication of growing conservatism as Indonesia’s legislative and presidential elections loom.

The PKS’ strategy has certainly worked well enough. The poorly-funded party has enjoyed grassroots support for its advocacy of the antipornography law under the banner of Islam. Critics of the original bill, including nearly the entire Hindu island of Bali, warned its vague terms would be used to mandate what women can and can’t wear, ban certain forms of art and traditional culture. It is likely those same critics will now see the banning of the Jaipongan dance as an opening of the conservative floodgates.

The party’s factional chairman in the Indonesian parliament, Zulkieflimansyah, was alarmingly frank about the motivation behind such policies at a recent discussion about the upcoming election, likening the position of the party in regards to the pornography law as being “between a rock and a hard place”.

“If we go to the grassroots, people thought that in promoting the pornography bill meant that we don’t agree with pornography, and if we don’t agree with the bill it means that we do agree with pornography in Indonesia,” he said, at the event organized by Jakarta’s foreign correspondents club in the capital city.

“That’s why many issues put us between a rock and hard place, because it is easier for the PKS to be popular and be voted for by many people if we are able to organize big rallies and big demonstrations against unpopular policies issued by the government,” he said.

Can a party who can apparently bend to the will of the lowest common denominator in order to win votes be considered a serious contender in the upcoming election? It should be. Last year the PKS had unexpected but impressive wins in two provincial elections. But Zulkieflimansyah insisted the PKS supported gradual change over radicalism in Indonesia. In 2004, during the democratic country’s last legislative elections, the PKS removed a policy platform that Indonesia become an Islamic state, abandoning pancasila, the vague, five-part philosophy put in place in the Indonesian constitution to allow all races to worship.

If Islam doesn’t win enough votes, the party has other options. Zulkieflimansyah said the PKS is also aware that Indonesian celebrities running as candidates helped draw attention when campaign funding was low. Ahmad Heryawan, the West Java governor who recently banned the traditional Jaipongan dance, is said to have won his election last year thanks to the popularity of his running mate Dede Yusuf, a well-known actor.

“Immediately the grassroots will come to you, shake your hand, and just admire the beauty of the movie star and so on and so forth, and you’re saving a lot of money,” Zulkieflimansyah said. Which is morally acceptable, one would presume, as long as there isn’t any hip swiveling involved.

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