Coldplay controversy: Islamic hardliners driving Indonesian cancel culture

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Religious protesters and police clashed outside the Coldplay concert at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium on 16 November.

The successful Coldplay concert held on 16 November at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium not only sparked a war over tickets but also a war over ideologies, as the Islamist group 212 Alumni Brotherhood (PA 212) launched a campaign to cancel the concert.

PA 212 opposes Coldplay for endorsing what it calls ‘LGBTQ ideology’, which they deem incompatible with Islamic values. Their campaign led to a clash between protestors and police outside the concert.

The group – which takes its name from the mass demonstrations against former Governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, of 2 December 2016 – issued a warning prior to the show that they would obstruct Coldplay’s arrival at the airport if the concert proceeded. They threatened to do so by mobilising crowds of people carrying snakes.

Attempts to cancel public figures, groups and events are becoming a common occurrence in Indonesia, from the singer Lady Gaga, to the Israeli football team and now the latest Coldplay concert.

Their modus operandi is always the same – try to mobilise the masses under the pretext that a certain figure threatens their identity as Muslims.

Majoritarianism is now a feature of Indonesian democracy

The dominance of a Muslim identity as the majority religion in Indonesia is partly a consequence of rising Islamism since Soeharto’s resignation in 1998 and the arrival of democracy.

This gave previously-repressed Muslim groups new freedoms. It also helped generate a sentiment of majoritarianism – a political approach that prioritises and privileges majority groups over minorities. Majoritarianism manifests in many ways, such as the mobilisation of majority groups, the use of inflammatory religious rhetoric, and the promotion of policies that discriminate against minorities.

These are all recurring tactics used by PA 212 and similar Islamist networks to weaponise Muslim identity through populist symbols and slogans. Their views are hardly reflective of the broader Indonesian population – but that doesn’t stop PA 212 from claiming to speak on behalf of the majority.

This was evident when the Deputy Secretary General of PA 212, Novel Bamukmin, was asked why his group opposes Coldplay’s arrival. He replied, “We from PA 212 reject Coldplay concerts that support LGBT (because we are) the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Also LGBT is very contrary to the values of Pancasila,” he said.

The political incentives for cancel culture

It is important to also consider the motivations of groups like PA 212 when they seek out controversy.

Despite achieving notoriety after the jailing of Ahok and the 2019 general election, PA 212 has since lost much of its political momentum.

First, the presidential candidate they supported in the 2019 presidential elections, Prabowo Subianto, was defeated but subsequently welcomed into the Widodo government, and is now running the presidency with Jokowi’s son as his vice presidential pick. He has effectively abandoned PA 212.

Then, in 2020, the founder and figurehead of the movement, Rizieq Syihab, was arrested for violating health restrictions throughout the pandemic. His own Islamist organisation, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has been banned.

In this context, this latest stunt from PA 212 can be seen as ploy for attention to increase their political relevance in the lead-up to another election.

This phenomenon is not unique to Indonesia. Norbert Merkovity argues many political actors are now deliberately courting controversy for political gain – and celebrities make ideal targets for controversy because they often generate social media buzz. He argues Donald Trump deployed a similar strategy to win the 2016 election in the United States.

This latest stunt can therefore be seen as an attempt by PA 212 to piggyback off Coldplay’s global popularity and name recognition. Paradoxically, the criticism of a popular figure can sometimes boost the popularity – or at least the political relevance – of the critic.

Harnessing the brand recognition of celebrities in this way can also be used to capture the attention of certain voter segments – typically young people. It’s a wily strategy for the 2024 election, given the General Election Commission (KPU) have said as many as 60 percent of voters will be aged between 17 and 39.

Polarisation is marginalising minorities

Religious polarisation and majoritarianism has deep roots in Indonesia but it has certainly worsened over recent years. Perhaps it is the political incentives for outrage in the modern attention-based political discourse that is driving this polarisation.

The controversy surrounding the recent Coldplay concert can be seen as a largely rhetorical political manoeuvre launched by Islamists seeking to maximise their relevance in the lead up to an election – but that doesn’t mean there were not real costs borne by the LGBTQ community. When religious groups push majoritarian narratives, it is, unfortunately, minority groups – in this case the LGBT community – who are usually  framed as wrongdoers and threats to the majority identity.

The situation is a reminder of the challenges still faced by minority groups in Indonesia. It also highlights the importance of interfaith dialogue and religious moderation to promote inclusiveness, equality and respect for minority rights.

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