While Americans debate the meaning of naming a woman of Indian descent as the new Miss America, a beauty pageant being held 10,000 miles away has sparked a different kind of controversy. Hard-line Muslims in Indonesia have threatened to disrupt the Miss World beauty pageant being staged on the island of Bali, a resort area that has a long history of tolerance and is wildly popular with Western tourists. Bali is also dotted with Hindu temples and has little Islamic presence. The pageant began last week and will conclude on Sept. 28.
According to a report in the Jakarta Globe, following weeks of protests against the pageant by Islamic fundamentalists, some Muslim extremists have vowed to physically prevent the beauty contest from taking place, saying it violates Islamic values. Hundreds of members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a highly controversial group that seeks to establish Shariah law across all of Indonesia and has been accused of committing scores of hate crimes against religious minorities, were blocked from boarding a ferry in Banyuwangi, East Java, bound for Bali by an equal number of police officers and the National Police’s Mobile Brigade. East Java police also refused to provide FPI with a permit to stage a demonstration.
But the Muslim hard-liners have already won a few battles since Miss World officials decided to move the pageant’s venue to Bali from Bogor in West Java, over fears of protests and disruptions. Beauty pageant officials also agreed to eliminate the bikini portion of the festivities – instead, the contestants will wear traditional Indonesian sarong dresses. (Last year, Islamic extremists managed to have a concert in Jakarta by American pop star Lady Gaga canceled.)
Still, FPI is demanding the pageant be canceled outright. “Bali is part of Indonesia, and Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country,” Haidar bin al-Hamid, the chairman of East Java’s FPI, told the newspaper Tempo. He added that photos of bikini-clad beauty contestants on the Internet are tantamount to “pornography,” which is illegal in Indonesia.
Another Islamic hard-line group, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which is active in East Java, also strongly condemned the Miss World pageant, blasting it as contrary to both “Islamic culture” and “Indonesian culture,” according to the state-controlled Antara news agency. “As [a] predominantly Muslim country Indonesia has an important role in the Islamic world,” said HTI official Abdul Rahman. “Holding it here will influence the perceptions of other Muslim countries.”
Perhaps the most creative response to Miss World came from the World Muslimah Foundation, an Islamic women's group, which is conducting an alternative event in Jakarta called “World Muslimah Pageant.” In this pageant, modestly clad Islamic women are judged on their beauty and fashion sense, but also on their spirituality, including the ability to memorize passages from the Holy Quran.
However, it is not just organized hard-line Muslims who are uncomfortable with a beauty pageant in Indonesia. Many ordinary people are appalled by how such events exploit women’s bodies – and it also raises some questions about how Indonesia, a rising Asian economic power, wants to be viewed by the world. “I don’t approve of the Miss World contest in Indonesia,” said a 47-year-old Indonesian named Samiyati in Jakarta, according to the Wall Street Journal. “The whole pageant [is] haram [forbidden] in Islam.”
A 20-year-old female student named Apriyanti told the Journal that a beauty pageant sends a wrong message to other countries. “While the international community could get to know Indonesia better through this pageant, I don’t think it is necessary [to expose parts of a woman’s body that should be clothed, according to Islam] to the public,” she said. “The negatives outweigh the positives.”
Meanwhile, Bali police remain adamant that they will provide the highest level of security at the beauty pageant. “If all the Miss World activities are conducted in Bali, we will secure all of it,” Bali Police chief Inspector General Arif Wachyunadi told the Indonesian news website Merdeka.com.
Some foreign governments remain concerned about the possibility of terror attacks on the pageant – indeed, in October 2002, Islamic extremist groups detonated bombs in Bali that killed more than 200 people (mostly tourists) and wounded 240 others. The British Foreign Office has issued a travel advisory with respect to Bali, warning of the possibility of violence. “Extremists may be planning attacks targeting the Miss World pageant being held in Bali, including possibly against hotels used by participants,” the Office said. “In addition, local Islamist vigilante groups have threatened to hold large-scale demonstrations to disrupt the event.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.