Does the fatwa on homosexuals in Indonesia matter?

The Indonesia Ulema Council issued a fatwa that says same-sex relations should be punished by death. from nito/www.shutterstock.com

Talking about religion and homosexuality can be like mixing water with oil. They don’t go well together.

Discourses on homosexuality are part of religion’s long history, particularly among Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Broadly speaking, these religions do not tolerate homosexuality and consider it a sin. Although there are exceptions within those faiths. Even Pope Francis, who has spoken out against same-sex marriage, has said that people “shouldn’t be marginalised” just because of their sexuality.

Recently, Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Council of Indonesian Ulema (MUI) issued a fatwa (an Islamic legal edict) condemning homosexuality. This came around the time the Indonesian government carried out a flurry of executions of drug traffickers on death row, which prompted international pressure against Indonesia’s policy on the death penalty. In its edict, the MUI suggested that same-sex relations to be added to the list of crimes punishable with death.

The MUI also recommended the government to set up rehabilitation centres to cure “perverts”. They argued that perversion is increasing in the society. Aside from sexual molestation, the MUI included homosexuality as perverted.

Reaction from LGBT community

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Indonesia has responded to the fatwa in a calm manner. Suara Kita (Our Voice), an LGBT rights organisation, wrote on its website that the MUI has a right to its opinion as much as Suara Kita has the right to dismiss the fatwa.

A prominent member of the LGBT community, Bhimanto Suwastoyo, who is the deputy chief of the Jakarta Globe, said that he did not think much of the fatwa.

Aside from the calm response from the LGBT community, what are the implications of the MUI’s edict in the struggle for LGBT rights in Indonesia?

Indonesia and LGBT rights

While more and more countries acknowledge the rights of LGBT people through same-sex marriage laws, Indonesia actively obstructs international advancement of LGBT rights.

Last year, Indonesia, along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, was one of the countries that opposed the passing of a UN Human Rights Council LGBT resolution.

Indonesia does not explicitly ban same-sex relations in its criminal code. However, under Indonesia’s anti-pornography law, homosexuality is defined as a sexual deviance.

The sharia-ruled Aceh province in Sumatra bans same-sex relations, with a sentence of up to 100 public floggings. Palembang, another province in Sumatra, also criminalises same-sex relations with a penalty of up to six months imprisonment.

Fuel for discrimination

The MUI’s fatwa will most likely not be implemented in Indonesia’s legal system. Indonesia’s religious minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin said he did not agree with the MUI. He argues homosexuality is an individual’s choice.

But the fatwa’s existence may be used by religious vigilante groups to attack Indonesia’s LGBT community. Islamic edicts from the MUI are not legally binding. However, the state and Muslim society in Indonesia often use a fatwa to solve Islam-related matters. Lawmakers often refer to MUI fatwas in drafting many state laws, such as the law on halal products and hajj management.

Even though the fatwa is not legally binding, for some Muslim conservatives it is more than enough to ban homosexuality in public spaces. It can become a foundation for many policies and practices that reinforce hetero-normative and binary gender systems.

Religious vigilantes have previously attacked events organised by LGBT groups. In 2010, they attacked the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) conference in Surabaya and the Q!Film Festival in Jakarta. In October 2010, the MUI urged the national censorship board to ban any movies that promote homosexuality.

Through the fatwa, the MUI label homosexuality as a sin, unnatural and immoral. By releasing edicts, the MUI tries to play a role as Indonesia’s morality police and the guardian of the faith of Muslim society.

For the MUI, the objection to homosexuality is definite, without room for critical discussion. Many Muslim people follow the MUI’s line of thinking and believe that homosexuality has no place in Islam. Criticising its view of Islam can be perceived as opposition to Islamic law.

The change role of the MUI

The MUI is a non-government Islamic organisation established by the late president Suharto in 1975. Suharto used the organisation to gain political support from diverse Islamic organisations.

When Suharto established the MUI, there were many Islamic groups that were political with the intention to replace the state ideology Pancasila with Islam. A key role of the MUI was to convince other Islamic organisations to accept Pancasila as state ideology. Accepting Pancasila would mean abandoning their political intention of establishing Islam as a state ideology. The Islamic groups would have to recognise pluralism as inherent in Indonesian society.

After the fall of Suharto’s dictatorial rule in 1998, political Islam began to re-emerge. This has affected the way the MUI responds to socio-religious problems in Indonesia.

The MUI has since become more in favour of Islam and moved away from the notion of pluralism. It seems to ignore Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), the national motto. It attempts to impose its authoritative interpretation of Islam on Indonesian society.

For instance, in 2005, the MUI issued a fatwa that banned pluralism, secularism and liberalism. The MUI view pluralism the same way as it views syncretism (the combination of different forms of belief or practices) and religious relativism: as a threat to Islamic belief, as it can lead to heresy.

Beyond dividing society into ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’

By issuing the recent fatwa, the MUI categorised members of the LGBT community as —to borrow philosopher Judith Butler’s term – the abject. The creation of the abject aims to ensure “normal” behaviour. The boundaries between “normal” and “abnormal” are always scrutinised by the family, school, community, state apparatus and religious institutions. To make the “abnormal” conform to social norms, they are stigmatised, marginalised and attacked.

However, LGBT communities and organisations in Indonesia have shown that they refuse to be labelled as the abject or “abnormal”. They continue to fight for their rights. What keeps them going are lessons from past experiences of other movements and solidarity from other human rights groups.

The MUI is not the only voice on Islamic interpretation in Indonesia. There are a number of Muslim scholars who are critical of the MUI’s strict interpretations of Islam. For example, noted Islamic scholar Musdah Mulia has proposed a humanist interpretation of Islam. In 2009, she argued that there is a room in Islam for gay, lesbian and other non-normative sexualities.

Mulia’s view on Islam is based on the central principles of justice, virtue, equality, wisdom, compassion, pluralism and human rights. These leave no place for discrimination and hatred. For Mulia, the reinterpretation of Islamic texts must be done contextually, not literally, with reference to the true objective of Islamic legislation.

By adopting this view of Islam, talking about religion and homosexuality will no longer feel like mixing oil and water.