May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

What gives rise to moral outrage?

What gives rise to moral outrage?

Rather than being merely the result of religious extremism, recent cases of moral outrage point to a wide range of current political and social problems

Saskia Schaefer

‘Stop the import of immorality into Indonesia’, Wendra Ajistyatama

In June 2012, images of a group of formally-dressed men watching a pile of burning books circulated widely in the Indonesian media. The publishing company PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, part of Indonesia’s largest media conglomerate, Kompas Gramedia Group, was involved in a blasphemy scandal: the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) had deemed the Indonesian translation of a book by the US theologian Douglas Wilson to contain passages insulting the prophet Muhammad. The FPI filed a complaint with the police, arguing that Gramedia had defamed Islam by publishing the book in Indonesian. Consequently, Kompas Gramedia not only stopped selling the book but also staged a book burning outside its West Jakarta complex as a demonstration of remorse. The event was overseen by company director Wandi S. Brata and several officials of one of the most important Muslim authorities, the National Ulama Council, (MUI), including deputy chairman Ma'ruf Amin. In all, some 200 copies of the book were burned.

This staged and heavily symbolic event not only illustrates the tension and fierceness of the blasphemy discourse in recent Indonesian history. It was also the culmination of a number of cases of moral outrage that dominated Indonesian public debates in the first half of 2012. In February 2012, the government announced an ‘Anti-Pornography Task Force’ to ensure enforcement of the controversial 2008 anti-pornography law. A few weeks later, the Minister of Religious Affairs, Suryadharma Ali, declared miniskirts to be pornographic. In May, a book launch by the Canadian Muslim writer Irshad Manji was cancelled when police were unable to control a crowd protesting against the event in the name of Islam.

Shortly after the Irshad Manji affair, a Jakarta concert by the American pop star Lady Gaga was abandoned in response to sustained and vocal protests. This time, Indonesia’s morality debates made international headlines. Many observers found these events hard to reconcile with the Indonesia they knew, an Indonesia characterised by diversity, pluralism and tolerance. Yet, such episodes have come to be increasingly familiar.

Local and foreign observers have interpreted recent calls for stricter morality and an increased sensitivity to matters dealing with religion as signs of the growing influence of more austere interpretations of Islam in contemporary Indonesia. The high profile of groups such as the MUI, the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) and the FPI in recent protests adds weight to the view that moral outrage has its origins in Islamic radicalism. But is this really the only explanation we should be looking at?

Islam and beyond

A closer look at the controversies sparked by feelings of moral outrage suggests that they need to be seen in a wider social and political context. Protests and attacks against religious minorities and people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, along with laws such as the blasphemy law and the anti-pornography law share similarities. The same groups have been involved in these events and they often use a similar set of arguments and accusations to explain their concerns. For example, they frequently argue that people have to be protected from becoming ‘confused’ or deviating from the true path of Islam. But there are also differences in the nature of these protests. In some cases, the protesters argue that religion and God are treated disrespectfully. In others, their concern is for the morality of young people, which they claim can be damaged by exposure to bad examples. This was the declared motive behind the clampdown on punk groups in Aceh that took place in December 2011 as well as the calls for a ban on the Lady Gaga concert.

Although the presence of Muslim groups figures prominently in the media’s representation of these debates, such arguments can also be viewed quite separately from Islam. There are many more sections of society that have a stake in these debates, and actors other than those associated with an increasingly intolerant Islam have made their voices heard in the calls to guard the country’s morals. During the controversy surrounding the Lady Gaga concert, for example, authoritative Christian voices also spoke out strongly against her performance, claiming that it was disrespectful to their religious feelings. The Buddhist Indonesian Legal Aid organisation criticised the concert, as did the Indonesian Child Protection Commission. Similar protests were held in non-Muslim countries such as the Philippines and Korea. Clearly, the protests went beyond Islam, even beyond religion in general. This suggests that rather than reading these cases of moral outrage solely as signs of an increasing Islamic orthodoxy, we should consider other, and perhaps deeper, causes and motivations for these events.

Some observers and public voices see such controversies as diversionary tactics on the part of those able to influence public debate. They argue that this type of debate is far less threatening to Indonesia’s power holders than discussion of issues such as rising fuel prices and the increasing gap between rich and poor, the consequences of Indonesia’s rapid and ongoing modernisation. They point out that topics regarding gender roles, sexuality and religious observance, as well as high profile corruption scandals occupy far more of the media’s attention than issues like structural poverty, inequality and the environment, which have a much greater impact on the daily lives of the majority of Indonesians. In Indonesia, as elsewhere, the outcomes of debate on these sorts of issues are often a lot less predictable than debates that turn attention from the struggles of daily life to a reassuring sense of moral superiority in the face of lewd behaviour. From this perspective, the expression of moral outrage serves to strengthen social unity in the face of a perceived external threat, suppressing more fundamental questions about division and inequality.

Underlying problems

Viewed in this light, cases of moral outrage might conceal or give vent to a range of larger structural problems. For example, some have argued that Lady Gaga’s planned performance was met with so much controversy because she herself symbolises a hedonistic capitalism that is taking an ever firmer grip on contemporary Indonesian culture. This could explain why an event that many observers, particularly those outside Indonesia, regarded as trivial became the target of a broadly-based protest movement. On the other hand, some observers argued that the concert organisers had failed to pay their protection money to thugs who went on to sabotage the event in the name of religion. In this case, the argument is that religion was used to conceal what was clearly an underlying economic grievance.

In the case of attacks that have occurred against homosexual and transgender groups and events, we need to ask whether the anger displayed by protesters might be at least partly due to resentment of the foreign interests that fund these events, often staged in expensive hotels and foreign embassies. Viewed in this light, moral outrage cannot be divorced from questions of class and national identity. As unbridled consumerism rapidly changes Indonesia’s social and economic landscape, an atmosphere of uncertainty, stress and uneasiness affects large sections of the population, especially those who find themselves excluded from the benefits that others appear to enjoy. In this climate, events that are connected to foreign influence or that symbolise social change, such as Indonesia’s annual Queer Film Festival, can be seen to feed into more general fears. The burning of copies of a book by a US theologian accused of having insulted the Prophet Muhammad cannot be entirely disconnected from the renewal of US foreign policy interest in Indonesia, or the spread of American consumer culture. Indonesian politicians still rhetorically uphold the values of social justice that played an important role during the country’s struggle for independence, and this fosters a general sense of unease about the excesses of a booming capitalism and foreign influence. Under these circumstances, particular interest groups often find fertile ground for channelling negative feelings into protests that advance their own political and social agendas.

As these considerations suggest, the increasing role of Islam in contemporary Indonesian society should not be seen as the only explanation for the recent cases of moral outrage reported in the Indonesian media. While religion is important, the causes of moral outrage cannot always be reduced to religious extremism, because extremism of any kind is often a symptom of a society’s failure to meet the needs of all its component parts, just as it also a response to social, cultural and economic pressures. A careful consideration of these events suggests that the issues at stake involve the role of the state in policing the behaviour and attitudes of individuals, the question of special group rights, perceived foreign influence and growing inequality.

In other words, recent debates on moral issues are evidence of ongoing negotiation over at least two major questions that have emerged in post-Reformasi Indonesia: What is the role of the state in managing Indonesia’s pluralistic society, and what laws and policies are needed to define and regulate acceptable behaviour? These questions concern the relationship between religion, society and state, but they also point to fundamental changes in the relationship between the state and the individual that began with the political changes ushered in by Reformasi. Cases of moral outrage make good copy for the popular media, but we need to look beyond religious extremism if we are to properly understand their real causes and their social and political significance.

Saskia Schaefer ( is a doctoral candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin.


Related articles from the II archive

Indonesia's Q!Film Festival - Maimunah
Homophobia on the rise - Jamison Laing
'You're crazy! Don't make up things!' - Bram Hendrawan
For the good of the people? - Lee Wilson and Eryanto Nugroho



Inside Indonesia 111: Jan-Mar 2013{jcomments on}

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