‘The Porno Passion of Rizieq: The Islamic Defenders Front, Playboy and Poetic Justice’

FPI founder Rizieq Shihab. Illustration: @dpp_fpi / Instagram

Rizieq Shihab, firebrand cleric, founder of Indonesia’ infamous Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and crusader against pluralism and pornography, has officially been named a suspect by the Jakarta Police in a high-profile pornography case that is currently dominating headlines in Indonesia.

While many have cheered the police’s decision to go after Rizieq, who has used his position as the head of the hardliner organization to spread intolerance, violently attack numerous minority groups and unjustly imprison former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok Tjahaja Purnama, some progressives and human rights activists are hesitant to do so.

That’s because Indonesia’s police have charged Rizieq for sending sexting messages to and receiving nude photos (which were then leaked online by a third party) from a woman who is not his wife. What should be a private matter between consenting adults has become a criminal matter only due to Indonesia illiberal pornography law, a vaguely worded piece of legislation that has given the government enormous leeway to morally police its citizens and target the LGBT community, among other abuses.

The pornography law, especially as it is being applied here, is unjust in its essence. But, if I had forced to pick one person in the world most deserving of being crucified upon its poorly written statutes, there is no doubt it would be Rizieq.

Why? Because the self-appointed moral guardian of Indonesia is getting nailed by the very law that he himself was instrumental in creating. A law that, I’d argue, has opened the door to all of the other legal tools of intolerance that are currently tearing apart Indonesia’s once proudly pluralistic character.

FPI vs Playboy

That’s right. While I have not seen it mentioned in any of the news stories about Rizieq’s current legal problems, those who can recall FPI’s actions back in the mid-2000s will know that the hardline leader and his minions were the loudest proponents for the highly-controversial Undang-Undang Pornografi & Pornoaksi (Law on Pornography and Pornoaction) and they used the moral panic whipped up by their much publicized protests against Playboy Indonesia to help get it passed.

Before the mid-2000s, FPI was seen as little more than a loosely organized group of vigilante thugs, mainly known for violently going after prostitution, gambling and nightlife venues, especially during Ramadan. Founded by Rizieq in August 1998, just four months after the downfall of Suharto, FPI was ostensibly created as a means for reasserting Islamic values into society and fighting the vice unleashed after the dictator, who had long repressed Islamic conservatism to maintain his own power, stepped down from power. The groups frequent attacks on private businesses landed Rizieq in jail several times, including a seven-month stint (reduced from the original 7-year sentence on the ground that he had “merely intended to to improve the morality of Indonesian society”) in 2003.

(FPI has also been referred to as “rent-a-thugs” who will ignore sinful activities for the right price as part of a lucrative protection racket – the best evidence of which is the numerous adult entertainment venues and brothels in Jakarta that have, for many years, all but openly offered up sexual entertainments yet have never run afoul of the group.)

What it took for the FPI to become a major player in the country’s politics was a fitting enemy, and they got just that with the opening of Playboy Indonesia.

In 2005, the infamous American adult magazine announced plans to launch a new edition for the archipelago, though an extremely bowdlerized one lacking in nudity and almost any overtly sexual content besides a few cheesecake photos of Indonesian models. Its content was far tamer than other Indonesian lad mags such as Dewi and Popular that were and are still tolerated.

Playboy Indonesia’s debut issue alongside a contemporaneous issue of Popular magazine, which is still in publication

But Rizieq and the FPI saw an opportunity in Playboy, in more ways than one. Cables from the US Embassy in Jakarta, released by Wikileaks, said Playboy Indonesia’s publisher paid several large cash sums to Rizieq and other senior FPI officials, ostensibly to keep the hardliners from raising a fuss before the magazine’s release.

If true, it was not money well spent. Once the first edition of Playboy Indonesia hit the shelves, FPI came out in force, “sweeping” stores to confiscate copies and attacking the building that housed the magazine’s editorial office en masse, eventually forcing the publisher to move operations to Bali after the first issue.

Ten issues of Playboy Indonesia were eventually published, but, largely due to hardliner protests the editor-in-chief, Erwin Arnada, was charged with violating indecency statutes under the previous criminal code (even police argued with FPI at the time that the tame magazine could not be considered pornographic). Erwin was eventually acquitted in the South Jakarta District Court.

However, the Playboy editor was later given a sentence of two years upon prosecutorial appeal to a higher court. Immediately thereafter, Rizieq demanded that his FPI troops track the editor down and report him to the Attorney General for execution.

(Seriously, Rizieq demanded that a man be executed for spreading pornography. Consider that for a moment in light of his current predicament.)

Erwin was not executed, but did go to prison. Eventually, in 2011, the Supreme Court freed him on a subsequent appeal in what many hailed as a precedent-setting victory for freedom of speech and the press in Indonesia.

Fighting ‘Satan’

But while the Playboy legal drama played out, it also opened the door to Indonesia’s current pornography bill. Submitted by Islamic political party PKS less than a year after the first issue of Playboy came out, the first draft of UU Pornografi dan Pornoaksi was so restrictive that opponents feared it would ban everything from tradition artwork depicting nude bodies to couples kissing in public.

It’s hard to imagine given Indonesia’s current political climate, but there was a large and vocal coalition of critics opposing the pornography bill, including former president and guardian of plurality Gus Dur. Critics rightly argued that it could potentially be devastating not just to individual liberties but also to traditional Indonesian culture.

But Rizieq and other hardliners used the example of Playboy Indonesia, which they argued was clearly obscene despite its lack of nudity or overtly sexual content, as proof that the old definition of pornography under the criminal code needed to be vastly expanded by passing the new law.

“If the Anti Pornography and Pornoaction Bill becomes law, it will make things clearer and more stable,” Rizieq told Antara in 2006. He also argued that “The cover of Playboy might be polite but the contents are satanic… so if those that defend morality against immorality are considered anarchists, then yes, we are super anarchists.”

After a great deal of debate and protests, the pornography bill was passed in 2008. Observers noted that Golkar and the Democratic Party of then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono helped secure the bill’s passage out of fear that doing otherwise might brand them as un-Islamic.

The FPI branched out into other forms of high-profile persecution, from attacking the LGBT community by forcibly shutting down a gay film festival to openly assaulting pluralists, as they did in 2008 when armed members of the hardliner group, accompanied by Rizieq, attacked a demonstration by the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Belief (AKKBB) at the National Monument.

On the very same day the Pornography Bill was passed, Rizieq was sentenced to 1.5 years in jail for inciting violence at the AKKBB event.

(Sidenote: police found a collection of Playboy magazines and pornographic VCDs while searching Rizieq’s office in relation to the case, which they then submitted as evidence at the trial, despite Rizieq’s panicked protests that it was simply evidence of the group’s case against the magazine.)

But while FPI had plenty of hatred to spread around, pornography always remained a major focus for Rizieq as he knew it was sure to get his group maximum media exposure. They loudly threatened adult film stars Tera Patrick and Maria Ozawa (aka Miyabi, whom they threatened to kill) after local movie studios announced plans to bring them to Indonesian shores to star in their campy horror films. They also protested against Pamela Anderson’s offer to donate her earning from a nude photo shoot to help the victims of the tsunami in Aceh and the Miss World pageant, which they called a “Whore Show” 

Then, of course, there was the infamous sextape case of Nazril “Ariel” Irham.

Victims of an unjust law

In 2010, recordings of the famous musician making love to two famous Indonesian starlets, neither of whom he was married to, went massively viral throughout the country, creating a moral panic that could only end with Ariel behind bars.The musician was the first person to be charged with violating the new pornography law (though he was eventually convicted under UU ITE, the Law on Electronic Transactions and Information) and was sentenced to 3.5 years in jail.

There are many parallels between Ariel’s case and Rizieq’s, the most important being that the so-called pornographic materials in both cases were clearly intended for private use only, which is actually legal under the pornography law.

But in both cases, police used the fact that the pornographic materials were leaked online to make the case that Ariel, and now Rizieq, violated the law by transmitting the materials to others.

Of course, the obvious counter to that argument is that neither Ariel nor Rizieq would ever want their private pornographic materials leaked to the public, and that only those who actually uploaded and spread the materials online should be charged according to the actual wording of the pornography law.

It’s an argument that Ariel’s lawyer made, and Rizieq’s attorney made the exact same argument on the day the FPI chief was named a suspect by the police.

“Even if it [Firza Husein, the woman alleged to have had the adulterous affair with Rizieq] is the one in the naked photos, it was for her own benefit, then that is not forbidden. According to the law, it should be the one who uploaded it that should be investigated,” said Eggi Sudjana, a member of the FPI leader’s legal team, as quoted by Detik.

“Rizieq is a victim. So why did they make him a suspect? Why is the one who uploaded it not arrested? That is my question,” Eggi went on to say.

Besides the weirdness of his statement relying on an assumption that the leaked documents were authentic (which Firza and Rizieq have always denied) Eggi brings up an excellent point. However, the FPI made a catchy banner to answer that argument during Ariel’s trial.

The FPI banner reads, “Even if it’s a private collection, adultery is still adultery!”

Obviously not a great legal argument, but many observers believe it was the hardline group’s dramatic daily protests that pressured the trial’s judges to criminalize Ariel regardless of the what the law actually said.

Here’s a quote from an Antara article covering the FPI protests at Ariel’s trial:

“The reports on Ariel`s porn videos have brought Indonesia to world-wide shame,” Muhammad Anshori, vice chairman of the Bandung chapter of the Islam Defenders` Front (FPI), said when addressing the crowd.

He said Ariel had committed adultery because he was shown having sex with women who were not his legal wives.

“Therefore, Ariel must be punished by stoning as required by Islamic law,” he said, adding the authenticity of the videos had been established by an information technology expert.

For those of you keeping score at home, Rizieq said pornography spreaders should be executed, FPI said adulterers should be stoned, and Rizieq has been named a criminal suspect for spreading pornography involving himself and a woman he isn’t married to.

Weaponizing Morality

Recent articles about Indonesia’s rising intolerance in the wake of former Governor Ahok’s electoral defeat and subsequent jailing for insulting the Quran (both of which Rizieq played an instrumental role in) tend to focus on the increasing use of Indonesia’s blasphemy law as the source of our country’s current anti-pluralistic predicament.

But I would argue that it really goes back to Playboy and the pornography law, which created a template that hardliners and politicians realized they could follow again and again to achieve their goals: manufacture moral outrage to control the media narrative and then use the spotlight to frame your opponents as immoral enemies of God. In a country where so many are sincerely pious but lacking the critical thinking skills to question the media (and increasingly, social media), and where public officials have become deathly afraid of being perceived as anti-Islam, it’s a formula that rarely fails.

Both the Pornography Bill and UU Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik (The Electronic Transaction and Information Law, which criminalizes anything that could be considered defamatory on the internet) were passed in 2008, and both have been consistently been used by political and religious elites to criminalize their opponents for exercising their freedom of expression. And although the blasphemy law has been on the books since founding father Sukarno was in office, the vast majority of its uses have taken place since the mid-2000, almost always being used against religious minorities.

I know it’s far too simplistic to place all of the blame for these laws, and the chilling climate of ultra-conservatism and intolerance they have created, squarely on Rizieq’s head. But he has always positioned himself as the figurehead of the movement and the ultimate arbiter of Indonesia’s Muslim morality, so the symbolism of him being taken down by the same illiberal laws and moral outrage machine he helped to create is… potent.

Another Kind of Justice

Many analysts have been forecasting depressing visions of Indonesia’s potential future based on recent events, so please indulge me as I spin another scenario, equally improbable but with a very different ending.  

Rizieq is eventually extradited back to Indonesia (he is, at the time of writing, hiding from Indonesian justice in Saudi Arabia) and is forced to undergo an intensely embarrassing trial before the public. His lawyers successfully argue that the pornography law is flawed and being misused by authorities. Rizieq goes free but the FPI implodes in the face of their founder’s profound humiliation. The next time the pornography law is used unjustly against, let’s say, a member of the LGBT community, they repeat the same defense arguments used by Rizieq’s lawyers and get off.  Everybody starts to question the validity of the pornography law. And UU ITE. And the blasphemy law.

Eventually, the laws get repealed and Indonesia is able to return to its proudly pluralistic self once again. And all it took was for one man’s hypocrisy to be exposed for all to see.

That… probably won’t happen. And even if somehow Rizieq were to escape the pornography charges, he is facing plenty of other criminal charges, some springing from more reasonable laws.

But it should be the pornography law that brings Rizieq down. Because even if that did not represent true justice, it is absolutely what he deserves. I cannot think of a more poetic justice.


The views and opinions expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect the views of Coconuts Media

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