Indonesian Sex Tape Scandal and Morality in Asia

Indonesian Muslim group members clash with supporters of Indonesian rock star Nazril Ariel     outside the court house in West Java on January 31, 2011 after it was announced that he would serve three and a half years in jail over sex tapes. (Bay Ismoyo /AFP/Getty Images)

What's wrong with mixing a little sex and rock n' roll? In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country - a lot.

A court in Indonesia has sentenced one of South East Asia's biggest rock stars, Nazril ''Ariel'' Irham to three and a half years in prison and fined him US$27,692 after a series of personal sex videos ended up on the Internet.

The videos, showing him cavorting with two top female celebrities, Ariel claims, had been stolen from his laptop. The case has riveted the country and is the latest case in a long-running morality crackdown that has claimed some other high-profile scalps. Earlier this year, the former editor of the now-defunct Playboy Indonesia begun serving a two-year jail term. 

Ariel, the frontman of the band “Peterpan,” was the first high-profile offender of the 2008 anti-pornography law backed by Islamic conservatives and opposed by an alliance of liberals and women's rights activists. The law carries a penalty of 12 years and a fear that fundamentalists have become more vocal since the pro-democracy movements that led to Suharto’s overthrow in 1998. Recently, Indonesia threatened to block BlackBerry's browser if RIM doesn't censor pornographic material. 

In the permissive West, the pop star's sentence appears more than harsh, but some Muslim hardliners are far from satisfied.

Abdul Qohar, the West Java provincial head of the Islamic Defenders Front, is angered by what he believes is a lenient sentence. He told The New York Times, “Looking at this through Muslim goggles, for the F.P.I. and all Muslims, adulterers must be stoned to death.”

The case raises big questions about the future political and social direction of Indonesia, which has a secular constitution despite its massive Muslim majority population. More broadly, it illustrates a unifying thread of social conservatism that runs through many Asian societies.

Rachel Cooper, Director of Cultural Programs and Performing Arts at Asia Society in New York says, "This is not just a case of a morality issue, it is a moral intellectual decision that endangers justice, democracy, and social equity."

She fears the potential consequences for Indonesia, a country of more than 300 million people, where "diversity holds strength in its unique openness."

But it's not just Indonesia. Morals crusaders and showbiz celebrities have collided across Asia. Entertainers in Hong Kong, actresses in Vietnam and government ministers in Malaysia have seen their careers ruined after others have seen their saucy personal home-made videos.

In 2008, China’s entertainment industry was shocked by "the Edison Chen scandal," which involved the leading singer and actor with 1,300 explicit photographs with other women in the industry. The ensuing shame, media persecution and death threats forced Chen to leave China and his career behind.

In India, right-wing Hindu vigilante groups loosely linked to the political BJP party still get away with beating up women they say are acting immorally in entertainment venues and bars.

Asian leaders often turn a blind eye to the massive commercial sex industries in their countries while claiming piety to the moral police who have infiltrated politics and the courts.

Discuss: How can progressives address issues like sexuality, pornography, permissiveness and the empowerment of women in Asia against a backdrop of rising intolerance? Do we give up individual rights, like privacy, for the "common" morality defined by  those who believe sexual licentiousness is more offensive than mass corruption?

Share your views below.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Shreeya Sinha
Shreeya Sinha is an award-winning Journalist, Multimedia Producer and Social Media Editor for Asia Society. She was raised in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.