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Conflict Indonesia

Reflections on the Recent Religious Violence in Indonesia

On Sunday (6 February 2011), a mob attacked the home of a local leader of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in the remote area of Cikeusik in Banten province. There is terrific coverage in The Jakarta Globe, the New York Times reported on it as well, and there are gruesome videos on youtube documenting the violence. The outrage on the Indonesian Twittersphere and facebook was pretty amazing and there was a protest by civil society groups at Bundaran HI yesterday, because this is just the latest in a long string of attacks against religious minorities in Indonesia over the last couple of years. But Indonesian leaders responded with sadly typical and embarrassing statements. The Indonesian president “regrets” what happened and ordered an “inquiry”, the Indonesian Minister of Religion blamed the victims, saying that Ahmadis were proselytizing and brought it upon themselves, and Banten’s governor said she hoped the incident would encourage Ahmadis to realize (insaf) their heresy and return to the rightful path of Islam. She even said that her government is sending religious outreach to the Ahmadi community in Banten to help them achieve insaf.

Now, even as I’m typing, in the district of Temanggung in Central Java province, Front Pembela Islam (FPI, or the Islamic Defenders Front) is attacking and burning down churches, at least three of them. For preliminary coverage in English, click here and here. On Twitter right now, there is good coverage if you follow hashtags like #Temanggung or #TMG

The protests and critiques have been eloquent, and I have very little to add but my support. Instead I’d like to quote in its entirety a kultwit (kuliah twitter), or a set of serial tweets, that my friend Daniel Ziv (@DanielZiv on Twitter) posted mid-day yesterday. His Twitter timeline is often full of biting sarcasm directed at Indonesian politics, celebrity, and society, but yesterday’s meditation on religion in reaction to the violence in Cikeusik, was serious and clearly from the heart. Before it gets buried away in the ephemeral Twitter timeline, I thought I would reproduce it as a complete text, with abbreviations removed. Each line was a separate tweet from Daniel:

Some reflections on yesterday’s [6 February 2011] awful attack on Ahmadiyah sect and what it reminds us about religion.

A passive government bears plenty of blame for the attacks on Ahmadiyah, but we allow far too many excuses for religion itself.

The tragic Ahmadiyah attack is a textbook case of religion’s dog-eat-dog nature; a primitive, medieval pissing contest.

Senseless, irrational things done in the name of something ‘sacred’ are immune to criticism, even by government.

If bicycle riding, atheism or jazz music caused this much evil and injustice, those activities would be immediately banned.

But religion’s inherent self-righteousness and claime to ‘absolute truth’ allows it to get away with anything.

From India and Iran to Ireland and Israel and Indonesia, violence is committed by religious groups. Those are just the countries starting with ‘I’.

“But REAL religion doesn’t tolerate violence,” we’re reminded. Must be a lot of ‘unreal’, deviant religion out there.

Far too often, asserting one’s religious identity involves not inward-looking faith, but one group’s singling out “the other.”

It’s time we recognized religion for what it is: a human social construct, a mix of folklore, culture, myth, heritage, history.

Religion is not the word of God, because there are too many Gods and too many religions for this to be possible.

If we were content with religion as culture/heritage, it could be beautiful. When it’s peddle as “absolute truth” it is dangerous.

One’s religion is entirely random, as accidental as one’s language, communal history and place of birth.

Met a young woman who’d just converted from Islam to Christianity. “So you decided that for 25 years you followed the wrong book?” Her: “Yes.”

Christopher Hitchens famously said: “Religion poisons everything.” Far to often, the faithful prove him right.

Tons of well-meaning believers don’t use religion to impose evil. Tragically, they are a far-too-silent majority.

Religion is too often driven not by faith but by blind faith; not by human morality but by herd mentality.

Faith can and should be deeply personal and introspective, but religion everywhere is externalized, arrogant, coercive.

Religion is mostly a reflection of society’s insecurities. We outsource our anxieties to a “higher entity” when we don’t know how to deal.

Religion is a lazy solution to identity: it sidesteps human complexity and independent thinking, offering rules and structure instead.

Religion co-opts self-evident human morality, re-brands it and makes it exclusive. The ultimate marketing scam.

Here in Indonesia, religious attitudes of “pasrah” and “Tuhan yang menentukan” are the greatest obstacles to our development.

Thanks for listening, Next week (if anyone is still following me) I shall tweet about atheism, which is not a religion. 🙂

People complain about the silent Muslim majority that allows this violence to continue. That is part of the problem, and I notice it daily, but I think it’s appropriate to note that Daniel’s kultwit was retweeted by hundreds of his friends and Twitter followers; he received lots of positive and very little negative feedback. I chose Daniel’s tweets because they were in English, and they go out on a limb beyond Indonesian politics, but there are plenty of well-informed and respected Indonesian public intellectuals that are speaking out too. I think it’s more than just a silent majority of Indonesians failing to speak out against this latest trend in religious violence. In addition to religion’s sacred and dangerous potency that Daniel identified above, there are those who leverage it as a tool for their own ends. It’s a chess game of power politics playing out systematically across the archipelago, using brutal zealots and religious minorities as pawns. It’s the potent combination of religion and power that explains why milquetoast President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his ministers, the police, and the legislators in parliament do not act to protect victims of violence, why public servants like Minister of Religion Suryadharma Ali and Minister of Information Tifatul Sembiring are able get away with statements that blame the victims, and why the majority of Indonesians remain silent in the face of so much outrageous inhumanity.

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Indonesia

Response to Hartoyo’s Opinion Piece in the Jakarta Globe

A few days ago, an opinion piece appeared in The Jakarta Globe titled “Longing for Acceptance, Homosexuals in Indonesia Find Hatred and Discrimination”, written by a gay Indonesian activist named Hartoyo.  His editorial was prompted by Front Pembela Islam’s (FPI, the Islamic Defender’s Front) success in preventing an international lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) conference from being held in Surabaya a few weeks ago.  An absolute miscarriage of justice, FPI’s embarrassing pre-emptive threats of vigilante violence triumphed over the rule of law in secular Indonesia. The organizers already had a permit from the local police to hold the event, but FPI successfully pressured and convinced the police to rescind it. In national headlines, mixed opinions were put forth, and while most do not support FPI’s methods, I think it would be safe to report that in aggregate, more than half of the opinions expressed were in favor of banning the event, and not least from Indonesia’s Minister of Religion.

But something about Hartoyo’s editorial did not sit well with me. His argument for legal protection for gay and lesbian Indonesians was narrowly constructed upon what another response described as “a world of rights defined by strata of acceptability.” I also left a comment under the name “kopyor”, and I reproduce a slightly revised/corrected version here:

 

Hartoyo makes the case to normalize his own sexuality at the expense of other marginal groups in Indonesia. He argues that he practices a ‘normal’ Islam, based on a mainstream Muhammadiyah upbringing, which “is not like those branded by ulema as ‘devious,’ such as those from the Ahmadiyah or Lia Eden sects, or even Shiites.” Whether Hartoyo meant it or not, the suggestion here is that within the diversity of Islamic practices found in Indonesia, some are less normal than others, and in turn less worthy of the recognition and protection he argues should be accorded to gays and lesbians. Then Hartoyo extends the comparison to “infidels” and wonders why infidels are accorded more respect and protection than gay and lesbian Muslims… again suggesting that infidels are somehow less worthy.
Hartoyo’s argument really falls apart when he sets up the supposed “legal protection” for religious diversity against the lack of it for sexual diversity in Indonesia. Sufi beliefs and practices are under attack in Aceh, the Ahmadiyah sect is under attack in West Java, and “kejawen” beliefs in the Java countryside are routinely belittled and condemned. In each of these examples, the formal modernist Islam that feels “normal” to Hartoyo (as “normal” as his homosexuality) stridently attacks its ‘other.’ And beyond Islam, the paranoia surrounding so-called kristenisasi (Christianization) is an excuse to prevent construction of churches and even to burn them down with legal impunity. In Banda Aceh, the local Confucian temple was prevented from holding a public celebration of Chinese New Year for the city’s Chinese community. Let’s not even start a discussion about Jews who officially do not exist in Indonesia.
I applaud Hartoyo’s broad argument that gay and lesbian Indonesians require legal protection. We need more voices, in particular from LGBT allies, and in Bahasa Indonesia especially, championing this cause. The FPI success in preventing an international LGBT conference in Surabaya constitutes nothing less than the failure of the rule of law and the triumph of vigilantism. But I condemn Hartoyo’s argument which implicitly throws other minority groups under the bus and forecloses possibilities for meaningful coalitions among Indonesia’s diverse communities.  –JHG