05/31/2012 08:28 EDT | Updated 05/31/2012 11:30 EDT

Have Islamicists Gone (Lady) Gaga?

The ideology that led to the cancelling of a Lady Gaga concert in Indonesia takes ultra-conservative Muslim society to a new level of austerity, wiping out diversity and individuality by destroying culture. It is cultural genocide. This is not Islam. This is Indonesia's twisted, extremist version of it.


The Lady Gaga concert was cancelled in Indonesia on Sunday when extremists threatened a bomb blast if it took place.

It came as a shock to some -- but not to all.

Indonesia's reputation as a pillar of human rights and free expression in the Muslim world seems to be vanishing amidst protests from groups who call themselves Islamic and wish to see change in Indonesia.

Such change, if it takes place, will mean the end of Indonesian culture, the end of human rights in that country, and the end of life as moderate Indonesian Muslims and non-Muslims, know it.

Right now, Indonesia is a country with a high Muslim majority population but a secular constitution.

Measures to incorporate shariah law have always been a concern, but now neither the police nor the Indonesian government seem to wish to counteract them.

One state in Indonesia, Aceh, already imposed shariah law in 2001, amidst threats of separation and civil war. In Aceh, last December, hundreds of punk rock fans came from around the country to the capital of Bandeh Aceh to raise money for Indonesian orphans. In response, shariah police arrested 59 young people at the concert, determining them a threat to their way of life and subjected them to measures to "rehabilitate" them. One young man worried about an arrest record ruining his career at the bank where he worked.

Is this Islam?

According to the narrow view of some powerful Muslim groups, such as the Salafist sect of Islam, there should be no culture outside of the culture that existed at the time of Prophet Muhammad for Muslims. This means additional prohibitions are added to the usual ones followed already by the ultra-conservatives. Music made with instruments that did not exist and were not available to the Prophet's community in the sixth century is prohibited. Because the Prophet was forced to live meagrely, trendy, colourful clothes are prohibited, as well as art, with the exception of patterns and calligraphy.

This ideology takes ultra-conservative Muslim society to a new level of austerity, wiping out diversity and individuality by destroying culture. It is cultural genocide.

Does authentic Islam impose cultural genocide upon its adherents?

Are we Muslims meant, as our Salafist brethren seem to say, to be one Ummah (or community) with no diversity in culture?

Is culture un-Islamic?

No. Culture is inherent to our humanity. There is no natural separation of human beings from culture without a loss of humanity. Culture is depicted by our fashion, our cuisine, our music, our photographs, our paintings, our poetry, our stories. It influences our identity. It enhances our uniqueness and celebrates both our commonalities and our differences.

Culture is art -- in every sense of the word. And art is beauty expressed by humanity.

As the Holy Prophet Muhammad said: "Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty."

As well, as stated in the Holy Quran:

"O Humankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you might (affectionately) come to know one another..." 49:13

The creation of nations and tribes, their diversity inherent, is divine.

It leads us to the question: Why? Why impose the notion that culture must be uniform and void of diversity?

It is not just Muslims. Cultural genocide does not discriminate. It takes place whenever and wherever one nation wishes to conquer another or regards it as a threat. It has taken place against aboriginal peoples all over North America. It has been evidenced by laws and policies such as the ban of the niqab and/or headscarf in Quebec and France. It creates cohesion among a mainstream majority such as in Nazi Germany. It is encompassed in the statement: "Ban their culture as it is inferior to our own and they are inferior to us."

And when we ban culture -- dress, art, music -- we ban freedom of expression. Then, we ban books, ideas, ideology, knowledge, thoughts and finally, conscience.

Does it make sense for anyone, particularly a Muslim group to promote a ban on freedom of conscience? Without freedom of conscience true faith exists only in fiction. After all, any faith, including Islam is about choice.

According to the Holy Quran:

"There shall be no coercion in matters of faith." 2:256

Why impose a ban? Answer: because without such freedom, there is no opposition.

It means in the Muslim world, dictators who punish people for apostasy by penalty of death (apostasy is the so-called crime of leaving the faith of Islam and almost anyone can be charged with this for a number of reasons), will also certainly ban music.

In Iran, where performing an act that shows you are not Muslim is punishable by death, Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani put a fatwa on Shahin Najafi's head, a 31-year-old political activist and rapper (the ayatollah accused Najafi of insulting a Shiite leader in his song "Imam Naghi". Najafi has defied the fatwa and though he has been forced to cancel a European concert tour, he continues to compose his songs). The fatwa is no shocker because the Iranian government regularly uses its rigid and skewed principles of what it calls Islam to shut down anyone who it deems a threat.

Our moderate Muslim brethren, the ones who believe in human rights but also somehow believe in shariah law hear this and say: "Oh, but that's just Iran."

Really? Given what is happening in Indonesia, Iran does not appear to simply be an isolated example anymore, and we know there are more countries suffering from a similar problem.

So what is the solution? Who will save Indonesia?

Well, a few weeks ago I came across a new name when news broke that Muslim Canadian author and speaker, Irshad Manji was physically attacked by extremists in Indonesia, for promoting her book, Allah, Liberty & Love. One voice came forward in the Indonesian press and bravely stood up for Manji. He said "freedom of speech not only belongs to conservative groups." His name is Ulil Abshar Abdalla.

Abdalla is fighting for freedom of expression in Indonesia along with pluralism and inclusivity. He is an Islamic scholar and leads an organization called the Liberal Islamic Network (also known in Indonesian as Jaringan Islam Liberal or JIL). With the assistance of agencies such as the Asia Foundation, it is reported that JIL is able to voice liberal and tolerant interpretations of Islam in Indonesia.

It was Abdalla, not the Indonesian government, who not only spoke out against the attack on Manji, but is also working to set up neighbourhood watch groups to protect people from extremists (likely because police are doing little). Abdalla is also demanding the government and police to take steps to curb the unlawful activities of these groups. It seems his demands have been ignored, I could not find any online report of police charges against any individual or group for making threats against Lady Gaga's concert or for the attack on Manji.

Still, despite opposition, including death threats, Abdullah and JIL are making their voice heard to the masses in Indonesia via talk radio, newspapers, books and online.

Ulil Abshar Abdalla and JIL represent hope and courage in Indonesia.

Where there is hope and courage, there is possibility.

And so it is possible that in Indonesia the extremists will not win.

It is possible that people like Ulil Abshar Abdalla and JIL, who love beauty, like Allah loves beauty, will.