Bali, bikinis, Miss World and fear of Islam’s ‘extremist fringe’

I would like to ask a journalistic question and I want to stress that this question is sincere.

I am not asking this question as part of a rationalization maneuver that allows me to write a post that contains the words “bikinis” and “Islam” in the same headline. Honest.

So here is my question: Does anyone in the mainstream press actually care about what Islam does or does not teach about women’s issues?

Let me put a more specific edge on this question: I get it that traditional forms of Islam stress modesty, but does anyone know what various schools of thought in Islam teach that would lead to, let’s say, a single-piece bathing suit being significantly less sinful than a bikini? Also, is this stress on modesty rooted in culture alone or in interpretations of specific passages in the Koran and other crucial texts?

In other words, is there information that journalists should be referencing in stories about women’s issues, passages worthy of commentary by sources?

Questions about journalistic issues linked to Islamic teachings and tradition have been bothering me for some time, as regular GetReligion readers may have noticed. Right now I am asking these specific questions because of an Associated Press story out of the Pacific rim that ran at The Herald Sun with the rather dangerous headline: “Miss World removes bikinis in Muslim Indonesia.” And here’s the top of the story:

Contestants at this year’s Miss World beauty pageant will not wear bikinis in the parade in a bid to avoid causing offence in Muslim-majority Indonesia, organisers have confirmed.

The 137 women taking part in the September contest will swap bikinis for more conservative attire, such as traditional sarongs, for the beach fashion section.

The contest is being held on the resort island of Bali, where foreign tourists flock in their millions and the beaches are packed with women sunbathing in skimpy swimwear.

But Miss World Organisation chairwoman Julia Morley insisted that none of the pageant’s contestants would wear a bikini.

The religion angle in the story is rather obvious. At this point (check their website), the Miss World authorities seem to be balancing several concerns at the same time — with their eyes focused on television ratings as well as event-site security. Yes, there will be a “beach fashion” section of the competition, but none of the contestants will sport a bikini.

So far so good. So they will all wear sarongs? That isn’t what the statement said.

So what is going on here and what does Lady Gaga have to do with it? Here’s all this short story will say:

“We treasure respect for all the countries that take part in the pageant,” she said, adding the outfits had not yet been finalised. Organisers are treading carefully after a number of music acts to recently visit Indonesia provoked controversy because of performers’ outfits.

Last year pop sensation Lady Gaga was forced to cancel her concert in Indonesia after Muslim hardliners threatened to burn down the venue and criticised her for only wearing “a bra and panties”. Singer Beyonce and band The Pussycat Dolls were also asked to cover up before performing in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

The upcoming Miss World pageant, to be held in Bali and Bogor just outside Jakarta, has already stirred anger with the country’s top Muslim clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council, which has called for its cancellation.

OK, in one or two sentences, what did the Ulema Council say? Can this group be quoted? What is the journalistic reason for leaving the decisive content out of the story?

Was anyone else left wondering why resorts at Bali are acceptable, but the pageant is not? Why don’t the relevant teachings — perhaps referenced by that unquoted council — apply to Muslims in the pageant, but not others?

Once again, what are the doctrines and traditions (click here for a sample) that are being discussed here?

Another AP report on this topic, as printed at The Telegraph resorted — surprise, surprise — to shallow religious labels.

Most Muslims in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country, are moderate, but a small extremist fringe has become more vocal in recent years.

So only people on an “extremist fringe” of Islam are concerned about issues of modesty? Moderate Muslims (such as participants and even winners in similar pageants) are cool with the bikinis? Why? What Islamic teaching are they ignoring or reinterpreting?

In other words, does this story have any content? Why isn’t anyone interested in the actual beliefs — in all of their diversity — of millions of Muslims around the world? Call me crazy, but I think readers could survive a few sentences of content, after the wink-wink headlines.

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  • Jerry

    I’m not one to automatically agree with all that you write as you’ve noted 🙂 But in this case I’m out of my chair applauding.

    And to go even further, who knows, maybe a reporter could discover some ideas in Christianity and Judaism about modesty. So while I’m at it, how about an approach that is not of the “the funny native ideas about modesty” kind. Instead I can dream about a story that puts how different Muslims think of modesty into the context about how it’s been considered in history, in the context of other religions and even in today’s America.

    Even in today’s America in which many consider modesty as a quaint idea, there are certain norms which, and this might shock a reporter, are actually different in different parts of the country. Even in sinful San Francisco and Berkley, there’s a ban on public nudity. And that paragon of progressiveness, Rep. Nancy Pelosi supported the SF ban. Maybe it’s not always called modesty, but somehow the idea still exists here even in permissive California.

  • tmatt


    I think we are consistently together on the issue that, when dealing with Islam, actual information about what different groups of Muslims believe and practice is always better than the usual labels.

  • Richard Mounts

    I agree that the various religions’ teachings about modesty should be included. Even the thoughts of the “nones” ought to be given some ink. Nearly 30 years ago I was estranged from any faith, yet what first attracted me to the woman who would become my wife was her obvious modest attire. Given that we both were of the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll generation, to realize that modesty appealed to us both came as a shock. BTW, the quotation marks above are for the sake of grammar, not for scaring people.

  • Bob Smietana

    Not to nit pick but “teach” might be the wrong word to use when it comes to Islam. “Practice” would be better. There is teaching involved obviously but the emphasis in on practice

    • Sari

      It seems like what we really need is the foundational doctrine and then some information about how that doctrine has been translated into practice. In faiths like Islam and Judaism, in which a body of religious law dictates observance, teaching is exactly the right word. Clergy should be interviewed, since they are the final arbiters of what is taught and why–even when it contradicts local custom.

  • Jeff Samelson

    One other interesting fact was left out of the article and discussion: the island of Bali is unique in Indonesia in that its dominant religion is … Hinduism. The Muslim clerical body trying to make demands about something happening in Bali is therefore about more than just a beauty pageant and standards of modesty.