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It’s only dirty in Indonesia

I DO NOT have any official role within the Indonesian judicial system. But I do feel like I can provide an important advisory service in the trial of Erwin Arnada, editor of the new Indonesian edition of Playboy, who faces up to 32 months in prison for putting out a magazine with indecent pictures. I may not know much about the law or Islam, but I do know an awful lot about indecency.

Indonesia -- the largest Muslim nation, with more than 245 million people -- is pretty moderate. The press is somewhat free, women wear jeans, and we haven’t declared war on it. Still, the publication of Playboy freaked the country out. When the first issue hit the newsstands in April, the Islamic Defenders Front attacked the offices of the editors who produced this “moral terrorism.” This act of suppression proved so successful that the issue sold out and was soon selling on the black market for four times the cover price.

To find out if Indonesian Playboy really is indecent, I put it to the same test our courts have used since Justice Potter Stewart wrote the majority opinion in 1964’s Jacobellis vs. Ohio: Does it give me an erection? Although I may not have the legal mind of Stewart, I believe I am just as good at getting excited.

Although I was unable to obtain the premiere issue of Playboy Indonesia -- the cover of which shows a woman’s face and the enticing headline, “Always Happy Early” -- I got the two latest issues. November’s cover line is “Justify Beauty.” December announces that model Isyane Angelita is “Against All Odds.” At the very least, Indonesian Playboy is slowly teaching Arnada English.

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The first thing I noticed inside Indonesian Playboy is that there is absolutely no nudity -- not even women in lingerie. All the models are wearing gowns, long dresses or skirt-jacket combos. More shocking was the fact that Arnada, like Hugh Hefner, is convinced his readers care about seeing party pictures involving LeRoy Neiman.

Despite these setbacks, I was determined to give this legal matter a fair shake. During an intense reading session in a New York hotel room, I noted that there was, in fact, something sultry and teasing about the poses. Or, as prosecutor Resni Muchtar put it last week, “The models also had inviting expressions on their faces.” Muchtar is not known for his bedroom talk.

In the December issue, I found myself ogling Cindy Bachito, whose hard stare into the camera, slightly parted lips and floral print skirt were almost doing it for me, though she did look a little young. I momentarily felt bad about being turned on by her, but then I remembered that if she’s in an Indonesian skin-mag, she’s got to be at least 14.

After half an hour with Indonesian Playboy, I cannot in clear conscience fully recommend that Arnada be acquitted. Sure, these photos were no more intense than Prada ads, but, in a way, Prada ads -- with their submissive poses and glorified promiscuity -- are a form of “moral terrorism.” The history of sexual social progress, after all, could reasonably be described that way, from the Garden of Eden to the printing of “Ulysses” to the career of Britney Spears.

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There are plenty of real porn movies sold in Indonesia, but they’re relegated to seedy stores in Jakarta. The challenge Playboy presents is that it’s sold in presentable bookstores and mixes journalism with sexuality. That was its brilliance when it was launched in the U.S.: the thrill of publicly subverting mainstream morality. With boobies.

So this trial means a lot in the global war between fundamentalism and liberalism, but Arnada might have to be a casualty for showing Miss November in a long red dress with a butterfly print. If Indonesian prisoners are anything like American ones, I’m guessing the inmates beat him up just for that.

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jstein@latimes.columnists.com

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