Indonesia's self-appointed morality police target Lady Gaga

The stage was already set for battle between the 52,000 Indonesian fans of Lady Gaga, who bought and paid for tickets to see her perform, and the 30,000-strong Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who promised to disrupt her concert in Jakarta scheduled for June 3.

Going by the Twitter and Facebook posts this week, the Little Monsters (as fans of the American pop singer call themselves) say they are not intimidated by threats from the FPI, Indonesia's notoriously violent, self-proclaimed morality police. "If it's a fight they want, then it's a fight they'll get" is essentially the attitude of the mostly young Lady Gaga fans.

But now it looks like the showdown will never materialize.

Who blinked?

The police. The real ones, paid with taxpayers' money.

Faced with the prospect of an ugly street fight between the two groups, the Jakarta Police announced this week that it would not issue the permit for the concert at Bung Karno Sports Stadium to take place. The police say they cannot guarantee the security of the concert or the safety of the performers and audience.

The National Police has yet to make a final decision whether a permit will be issued. But without the green light from local police, the concert is as good as canceled. The organizers are still hoping to come to some arrangement with the police.

In spite of their numerical advantage and tough talk, it would be unthinkable for the mostly upper-middle-class Little Monsters to actually take on the white-robe, white-turban FPI members, who have a long history of violence and claim that God is on their side in any fight.

Lady Gaga, or rather her fans, are the latest victims of the FPI, which has been spreading its tentacles ever wider to taunt, intimidate, harass and physically attack those it believes are transgressing against its own narrow definition of morality. In the case of Lady Gaga, it opposes her concert because, as one FPI leader says, she "worships the devil," and young Indonesians should be saved from the likes of her.

FPI chairman Habib Rizieq warns that if the police cannot stop Lady Gaga from coming to Indonesia, he'll mobilize all 30,000 of his members to do the job. They'll wait for her at the airport or they'll break up the concert -- by force if they have to.

And everybody knows that Rizieq and his FPI are capable of doing that, too.

Last week, the FPI disrupted a series of public events involving Irshad Manji, the Canadian Muslim writer, who was on tour to promote her book "Allah, Liberty and Love." The objection to Irshad, made famous through her 2004 work "The Trouble with Islam," was not so much her writings, but her being openly lesbian; FPI accused her of promoting homosexuality through her books and public appearances. Another group, the Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (MMI), violently attacked Irshad at a book discussion in Yogyakarta. While she escaped unhurt, one of her staff members was injured when an assailant hit her with an iron bar.

FPI has also targeted religious minorities like the Ahmadiyah and Shiah communities, claiming that their versions of Islam blaspheme against mainstream Sunni Islam. More than a hundred Ahmadis are still living in shelters after their homes, schools, and mosques were attacked and razed by FPI in 2006. One Shia community in East Java is living in constant fear after the local chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa (religious injunction) declaring Shiism to be heretical, and that it should be banned.

Christians, the largest religious minority in Indonesia, have also been targeted. Their churches have been vandalized on various pretexts, ranging from proselytizing to convert Muslims in the area to disturbing the peace. In two satellite town of Jakarta, Bogor and Bekasi, churches hold their Sunday mass on the streets because their worship houses have been forcibly shut down.

While almost everyone dismisses FPI and its radical views as a small group which does not represent the majority of Muslims in Indonesia, many are wondering about the government's failure to stop the group from committing violent and criminal acts. In turn, the police's failure to act has only emboldened the FPI, and its attacks have become more frequent and more violent. And FPI is casting its net ever wider.

This month, Indonesians mark the 14th anniversary since the end of three decades of authoritarian rule under President Suharto, and the beginning of a more democratic and transparent government. This should be a happy occasion. But for many, there isn't really that much to celebrate if their freedoms -- freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom from fear -- are being taken away by the likes of the Islamic Defenders Front.


Democracy Lab

Uganda's new software geeks

Makerere University's College of Computing and Informatics Technology is trying to get its students to create solutions to real-life problems. On its website, the department praised one team, Cipher 256, for winning the Microsoft Imagine Cup (in the East and South Africa Region). Aaron Tushabe, Joshua Okello, and Josiah Kavuma make up the winning team. In July, they will travel to compete at the world cup finals in Sydney, Australia. Their college has won this honor for its students five times in a row.

The winning concept is a mobile phone device that can detect ectopic pregnancies in women and monitor the movements of the fetus inside the mother. The application can be used at home, since the user only needs a mobile phone to carry out the scan. Uganda has over 14 million mobile phone users; today, people have phones even in remote villages. The group took its inspiration from the UN Millennium Development Goals for cutting maternal mortality.

I'm excited about this innovation because it can potentially do a lot to detect complications during the early stages of pregnancy. By picking up on these sorts of problems early, mothers will have the time to contact a medical professional who can offer therapy. Maternal mortality rates in most African countries are still far too high, of course, and an innovation like this seems like a great way to reduce them. The application, which is called WinSenga, can be found on both facebook and twitter.

This comes on the heels of an earlier application by Christine Ampaire called Mafuta Go. The app informs drivers on fuel prices at all gas stations in the vicinity: It won the Ring Masters Award in February. Over the past few months, gas prices in Uganda have been extremely volatile, so this sort of app can actually help drivers save a lot of money by helping them get the best deal. And in Uganda, just as in so many other places, fuel prices have a profound impact on the costs of many other goods and services. When gas prices rise, so do the costs of every other commodity, while the net income for most people stays the same.

It's a great feeling to see Ugandans coming up with solutions to Ugandan problems.