Jakarta, Indonesia — Indonesia has long been proud of being the world’s third-largest democracy and having the world’s largest Muslim population. It is a country in which democracy, pluralism and Islam coexist; a place where tolerance and diversity are widely celebrated.
At least, this is how Indonesia is portrayed in international forums. Yet recent events show a different reality, revealing that diversity is such a threat to one group that it feels it must be met with violence.
At the moment, various human rights groups in Indonesia are filing a constitutional review to the Indonesian Constitutional Court requesting to annul Law No. 1 of 1965 regarding the Prevention of Religious Abuse and Blasphemy, which allows the state to prosecute people for committing acts deemed to damage religion.
During a break at a hearing on March 24, a team of lawyers representing human rights organizations were attacked by a gang wearing the clothing and insignia of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The lawyers were harassed and verbally abused by their attackers, who called them “Satan.” Luckily, court security guards managed to protect the lawyers and avoid serious injury.
This attack was a violation of human and civil rights, and a vivid statement that differences are not respected by a fundamentalist majority. It was also an attack on the dignity of the Constitutional Court, given that the court itself is a place where legal issues are debated and where freedom of opinion, thought and religion – the substance of the contested law – are all guaranteed by the Indonesian Constitution.
Sadly, a similar unpleasant incident took place a few days later in Surabaya, East Java, where the Asian regional conference of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA) was scheduled to be held from March 26 to 28. Reportedly, the Surabaya police decided not to provide a permit for the conference due to strong protests from the local branch of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), a body of Islamic clerics.
According to the Jakarta Globe, Abdusshomad Buchori, chairman of the East Java chapter of the MUI, said the conference was an attempt “to ruin the people and the young generation.”
The East Java Islamic Mass Organization Forum (FOIJ) surrounded the hotel in which the participants were staying and demanded that they all check out by noon on Saturday, March 27. Worse, to ensure that they did so, representatives from the FOIJ raided the participants’ rooms one by one. Foreign participants were given a bit more tolerance – required to leave on Sunday at the latest.
Prohibiting such a conference is a violation of the rights to assembly and to freedom of expression as enshrined in the Indonesian Constitution, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2005.
Arguments based on majority morality should not be allowed to proscribe the rights of minority groups. In the context of a regional conference, such prohibitions will only damage Indonesia’s image as a democratic country in the international community, given that it has failed to allow a peaceful conference to take place. The conference’s objective was to unite Asia’s LGBT communities and organizations and draft an action plan by which they could cooperate to protect their rights.
In Indonesia, as elsewhere, LGBT communities face profound stigmatization and discrimination, and have subsisted in a milieu of marginalization, coercion and violence. These horrendous circumstances only amplify their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, a vulnerability rooted in the social, cultural and legal state of affairs they are subjected to. The situation is amplified by society’s lack of understanding of HIV, bigotry, social fears and moral resentment.
These two incidents reveal that pluralism in Indonesia is at risk, while diversity is negated and human rights are diluted by fundamentalists. In an environment in which pluralism and human rights are upheld, there is no place for any single group to force its truths or values upon others.
The government should take immediate and appropriate action to ensure that those who are responsible for these two incidents are held to account. Failure to do so would only add to the long list of examples of state impotency in the face of Muslim hardliners.
(Ricky Gunawan holds a law degree from the University of Indonesia. He is program director of the Community Legal Aid Institute, or LBH Masyarakat, based in Jakarta. The institute provides pro bono legal aid and human rights education for disadvantaged and marginalized people. ©Copyright Ricky Gunawan.)