Indonesia has recently been in the thrall of its first celebrity sex-tape scandal.

The now-notorious sex tapes allegedly show pop singer Nazril “Ariel” Ilham engaged in sex acts with actresses Luna Maya and Cut Tari (in separate tapes).

While Ariel made the tapes for personal viewing, the videos appeared on the internet after his laptop was stolen. Now everyone from school kids to office workers has been downloading, sharing and watching them. The affair has been dubbed “Peterporn”, a play on the name of Ariel’s pop band, Peterpan.

The appearance of these videos, and the huge public interest afforded them in the media, have produced an interesting test case for Indonesia’s far-reaching anti-pornography law, which was passed in 2008 by the Indonesian parliament in Jakarta. Even though anti-pornography laws have existed for a long time, their enforcement was subdued until the passing of the Rancangan Undang-Undang Pornografi – the Pornography Bill of 2008.

When launched, indigenous groups and the tourist region of Bali were seen to be threatened by the law. As it turns out, neither the penis gourds of West Papuans nor Bali’s lucrative tourism industry have been targets so far, with both provinces declaring they will ignore the law.

Early this year, the High Court ruled to exempt traditional and cultural customs from the bill as they cannot be seen to be pornographic. This is little legal reprieve, as definitions remain fuzzy and enforcement of so-called pornaksi (indecent behaviour) remains arbitrary.

Ariel has been arrested and charged. If convicted, he faces fines of up to 6 billion rupiah ($750,000) and up to 12 years in jail for sharing the sex videos.

The two female leads have been treated as witnesses, not suspects, in the case.

Policing morals has a long history and Indonesia is not alone in wanting to curb what in the region is seen as the negative effects of Westernisation.

New technology is making it harder to police access to what religious organisations, religious leaders and some self-appointed protectors of morality see as immoral. School children are exchanging the clips via Bluetooth, downloading it in internet cafes and watching it on their mobile phones. Some schools have begun to stop and search pupils, and internet cafes are being raided by the police.

Meanwhile, internet sites crash under the surge to download and share the clips.

The government has reacted with calls to screen the internet, following China and Malaysia in trying to filter internet content. This sort of censorship is doomed to fail as it has in other countries, as tech-savvy individuals find ways to circumvent controls.

What is more worrying is the sort of self-censorship it engenders. After the publication of Indonesian Playboy in 2006, and the violent reactions it sparked among some reactionary Islamic groups, some newsagents began to self-censor, going so far as to black out pictures they deemed inappropriate or cutting out entire pages featuring nude models.

Indonesia is often considered a tolerant and pluralistic Muslim country, in which diverse cultures can coexist and express themselves. The fall of Suharto and his New Order administration in 1998 opened the country to processes of democratisation, economic liberalisation and a revival of public religiosity.

However, these moves also sparked increased tensions and violence across the archipelago, as religious groups demanded their views on morality be enforced locally and nationwide.

Sharia laws have already been enacted, and policed, in parts of the country. Organisations such as the Front Pembela Islam – the Islamic Defenders Front – fight against prostitution, gambling, drinking and other vices against Islam. Their targets are Muslims who behave in ways that contradict FPI’s orthodox and fundamentalist views on Islam. They cite government inaction on vices as their impetus to take action.

In this case, FPI demanded swift government action to stop the distribution of the videos and charge the three entertainers involved. Calling porn a form of “moral terrorism”, they urged Indonesians to stop worshipping celebrities, whom they regard as a bad influence on public morality.

This spells trouble for the diversity of religious practices in Indonesia: not only are non-Muslims in the firing line, but also the heterogeneity of Islam. For much of the nation’s history, regional customs and ethnic peculiarities have made Indonesian Islam a showcase against the often deterministic and ethnocentric Western view of Islam.

Dangdut dancers in racy outfits still dance at weddings in villages across Indonesia, and their style of music, which blends Indian, Malay and Western influences, remains popular. It is performed by Muslims, for Muslims, yet crosses newly drawn lines of what is appropriate behaviour and morally acceptable.

The issue is one of who gets to shape the nation and what sort of Indonesia will emerge out of the post-Suharto and post-reformasi period. If the government follows the convenient populist drive to appease the loudest and most intolerant groups, the brittle national consensus is in danger.

Islamist groups have managed to sway the government more than once and any more ground given to them will endanger the peace in a multicultural and pluralistic nation built on tolerance and the accommodation of difference. Any more erosion of these principles has the potential to destabilise the nation, something that is in no one’s interest.

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