Indonesia – Democracy, Islam and LGBT rights

An alarming rise of anti-LGBT sentiment in Indonesia belies the ideal image of the world’s biggest Muslim democracy


Indonesia prides itself not only for being a country with the world’s biggest Muslim population, but also for its tolerant brand of Islam. Its two largest Muslim organizations, the traditional Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the modernist Muhammadiyah, which have a combined membership of some 80 million, are touted as examples of moderate Islam.

Indonesia - gay - photo - FardhanBut recent events belie the ideal image of the world’s biggest Muslim democracy. In recent months, Indonesia has seen an alarming rise of anti-LGBT sentiment, which Human Rights Watch, in its August report, calls “an unprecedented attack” on the rights of sexual minorities that was stoked by the government. Since January, people from across all sections of Indonesia life, from government officials, politicians, local media, Muslim leaders to even psychiatrists, have joined the chorus of homophobic condemnation, including calls to criminalize and “cure” LGBT people from mental illness.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla told the U.N. Development Program not to carry out LGBT community programs in the country. Defend the Nation, a paramilitary training program that claims some 1.8 million participants, declared homosexuality as one of the nation’s enemies, along with communism and illegal drugs. There were controversies over gay emojis. A transgender Islamic boarding school in the city of Yogyakarta was forced to close down in February after years of existence, following intimidation from hard-line Muslims. And the mainstream Muslim organizations (the NU and Muhammadiyah) issued statements saying that LGBT “lifestyle” is “incompatible with human nature.”

The parliament and the Constitutional Court are the latest battlegrounds with attempts to legally persecute sexual minorities. Indonesian lawmakers are pushing for an anti-LGBT bill, saying it is necessary to protect society from what they term “the LGBT propaganda.” An Islamic pro-family group called the Family Love Alliance has submitted a judicial review to the Constitutional Court, asking the justices to revise the penal code and criminalize gay sex (as well as consensual heterosexual acts outside of marriage). During the latest hearing on Tuesday, Justice Patrialis Akbar signaled his agreement with the expert witnesses who argued the ban would be in line with moral and religious values, saying: “We are not a secular country.”

Indonesia - gay bar - Jakarta gay bar

Founding father Sukarno, however, envisioned Indonesia as a secular, not Islamic state. There are no laws that penalize homosexual acts — except in Aceh province, which implements Shari‘a — but nor are there laws that prohibit discrimination against sexual minorities. This means the LGBT community faces an uneasy balance between disgruntled tolerance and daily prejudice. Anthropologist and Muslim feminist Lies Marcoes says that sexual minorities have long existed throughout the archipelago. “The problem, I believe, is not cultural, but how LGBT has become a political commodity to discriminate,” Lies tells TIME, adding that “since the reform [era], the public space has become more conservative.”

On Aug. 11, on the day HRW released its scathing report, Jokowi’s spokesperson, Johan Budi, said that although the rights of LGBT citizens are protected, “there is no room in Indonesia for the proliferation of the LGBT movement.” His comments were alarming. First, freedom of assembly is a constitutional right. Second, while other democratic countries are advancing LGBT rights, Indonesia seems to be moving in the other direction.

Human Rights Watch published a 56-page report, ‘These Political Games Ruin Our Lives’: Indonesia’s LGBT Community Under Threat, documenting the alarming rise in anti-LGBT rhetoric in the country.

“The rights of Indonesian sexual and gender minorities have come under unprecedented attack in 2016,” the report says. “Across the country prior to January 2016, many Indonesian sexual and gender minorities lived with a mix of tolerance and prejudice … But in early 2016, [a] combination of government officials, militant Islamists, and mass religious groups stoking anti-LGBT intolerance led to immediate deterioration of the human rights of LGBT individuals. What began as public condemnation quickly grew into calls for criminalization and ‘cures,’ laying bare the depth and breadth of officials’ individual prejudices.”

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