This piece is part of the East Asia Solidarity blog series, “Look East”, which highlights gender knowledge and studies of the East and Southeast Asia region. The initiative was conceptualised and led by MSc students of the LSE Gender Department in the summer of 2023, and explores themes around locating identity, heritage and (re/newed) knowledge of gender studies in the region. The series hopes to be a platform for those with links to the region to not only express themselves but contribute to the decolonisation of gender knowledge.
By Abdullah Faqih
The British rock band Coldplay is gearing up for their inaugural concert in Jakarta, Indonesia, scheduled for November 15, 2023. The Indonesian 90s generation, who grew up listening to Coldplay’s hits like ‘Yellow,’ ‘Viva La Vida,’ and ‘Fix You,’ is currently abuzz with the excitement. The initial batch of 50,000 concert tickets, which went on sale on May 17, 2023, sold out completely in just 10 minutes.
However, the enthusiasm surrounding Coldplay’s arrival has been met with opposition from several Islamic groups, one of which is represented by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). They opposed the planned concert due to Coldplay being considered synonymous with promoting LGBT. Similar rejections are also expressed by the alumni of the 212 movement, an Islamic group involved in the movement that aimed to remove Ahok, the former governor of Jakarta, due to his blasphemy towards the Quran. They have threatened to organize a large-scale demonstration if the Indonesian police grant permission for the Coldplay concert.
In this piece, I will delve into how the Coldplay example offers an opportunity to explore the recurring marginalization of the LGBT community in Indonesia, justified on Islamic religious grounds, how the current social and political environment plays a role in shaping this trend, and how individuals in Indonesia are refusing the dichotomization of Islam and LGBT, imposed both by Islamic groups within the country and by LGBT rights groups in the West.
In the Name of Preserving Morality: A brief history of the relationship between LGBT and Islam in Indonesia
The relationship between the LGBT community and Islam in Indonesia is long and complex. This postcolonial-archipelagic country, characterized by a Muslim-majority population and a democratic system, has a rich history of struggles revolving around LGBT rights, national identity, and religion.
During the New Order era of authoritarian rule from 1966 to 1998, gay and lesbian individuals were not perceived as a threat to the nation-state, and the waria (roughly translated as trans woman) community enjoyed a certain degree of social acceptance, despite the regime’s promotion of a heteronormative family ideology.
Following the downfall of the New Order dictatorship, Indonesia entered the Reform era, which marked the beginning of increased marginalization of the LGBT community. Hendry Yulius Wijaya identifies two key factors behind this trend. First, the democratization process during the Reform era allowed conservative Islamic groups to gain political influence. Second, there was a globalizing LGBT right, supported by international NGOs advocating for LGBT activism in Indonesia.
This evolving landscape led to a wider discourse on LGBT issues within the country. LGBT identity began to be portrayed as a threat to religious morals, often viewed as a Western value or incompatible with Indonesian identity or un-Indonesia-ness. This framing was actively promoted by conservative Islamic organizations, who saw it as an opportunity to advance their political agendas.
This narrative gained even more momentum in Indonesia in 2016 when numerous high-level government officials, including ministers and governors, publicly expressed negative opinions about the LGBT community. They depicted it as a part of a larger proxy war, associated with immorality, and perceived as a threat to social order. As a result, LGBT individuals are now considered one of the most hated groups in the country, trailing behind communists.
The current phenomenon of Coldplay’s rejection echoes this historical pattern: it represents another instance of prolonged marginalization against the LGBT community, adopting the post-New Order logic advanced by Islamic conservative groups. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) perceives Coldplay as closely associated with LGBT values, while viewing LGBT individuals as contradicting Islamic religious teachings and as a social deviation that threatens population decline due to the absence of reproductive functions in same-sex marriages. Acting as the nation’s moral guardian, the MUI also regards the LGBT group as a menace to the moral fabric of Eastern culture or “budaya ketimuran.”
Not long before the MUI’s rejection of Coldplay, in 2022, the passing of Dorce Gamalama, a prominent Indonesian transgender celebrity, brought LGBT issues to the forefront. Prior to her death, she had expressed her wish to be buried as a woman, firmly asserting her identity. She had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1983 and was legally recognized as a woman by the state in 1988. However, Indonesian conservative Muslims contested this choice and insisted that Dorce be buried according to her “original” male identity assigned at birth.
LGBT Ally-hood: Revisiting Islam’s Dominant Interpretation of LGBT Identity
The current marginalization of the LGBT community is rooted in Islamic beliefs that dichotomize the relationship between LGBT identity and Islam.
This raises the further question: which Islamic beliefs are employed as justifications for these acts of marginalization?
Describing the diverse aspects of Islam in Indonesia is a complex task, as it can easily be oversimplified. This complexity emerges from the interplay of the Arabic version of Islam, local religious practice, and other forces, including postcolonial context and global networks. Moreover, as Diego Rodriguez advises, it is important to be cautious when using the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ to categorize Islamic groups in Indonesia.
Despite its complexities, the general guideline for describing the binary of conservative and progressive is that conservatives closely adhere to the textual teachings adopted since the early years of Islam and apply them directly in today’s society, often without contextual interpretation. Under the conservative ideology, Islamic theologians interpret verses such as QS. 29:28 and QS. 7:80, which narrate the story of the people of Prophet Lut and their punishment by Allah for engaging in what was perceived as disgraceful homosexual practices. This interpretation is highly popular and frequently used as justification for framing a binary-opposition relationship between Islam and the LGBT community, thereby rationalizing the marginalization of LGBT people.
In contrast to the textual approach of conservative Islam, progressive Islam is grounded in principles of social justice, liberation, and contextualism. It interprets Islamic teachings based on principles of welfare and human rights. This approach is built upon the notion of “rahmatan lil alamin,” which is a blessing bestowed by Allah upon all of Her creations.
Democratisation which did allow conservative Islamic group to marginalize gender minority people also offered more avenues for diverse form of thought and expression. This political climate, which also included some conservative voices, has paved the way for progressive Islamic perspectives challenging the prevailing interpretation of Islam in relation to LGBT issues rooted in conservative ideology.
Among the progressive Islamic figures in Indonesia are Aan Anshori (Gusdurian Leader and Nahdlatul Ulama member), Marzuki Wahid (co-founder of the Islamic Institute Fahmina), Abdul Muiz Ghazali (professor of Islamic Studies), Arif Nuh Safri (Islamic scholar), and Musdah Mulia (Islamic scholar and human rights activist). They have backgrounds as human rights activists, scholars, and Islamic thinkers, with some of them having received education in the Middle East.
These individuals actively challenge conservative Islamic ideas about LGBT through various means. One of their approaches involves contesting the binary-opposition perspective of Islam and LGBT by reinterpreting the Quran. They suggest that the abomination referred to by Allah in the Quran is not related to homosexuality but rather to acts such as adultery, paedophilia, public sex parties, forced sodomy, rape, and other sexual crimes. Arif Nuh Safri also explains that homosexuality is natural or “meant to be” as it is Allah’s will, considering humans as part of the animal kingdom. They are also active in advocating for humanistic Islamic narratives through religious gatherings (pengajian), seminars and discussions, online posts and articles shared online and in journals, producing podcasts, and social media platform.
Apart from being LGBT allies, contemporary Indonesia also allows individuals who identify themselves as both queer and Muslim to speak for and represent themselves. They emerge and confidently embrace both their LGBT identity and their devout Muslim faith, examples being Amar Alfikar and Shuniyya Ruhama. Not only do they proudly express these two identities, often considered conflicting, but they also advocate for a humanistic Islamic narrative towards the LGBT community, seeking to reconcile the complexities between the two.
As an example, Amar Alfikar has authored the book “Queer Menafsir: Teologi Islam untuk Ragam Ketubuhan (English: Queer Interpretations: Islamic Theology for Diverse Bodies)”, which recounts his life experiences reflecting on Islamic theology and his queer experiences. Personally, I have also conducted life history research on Amar Alfikar, and I would argue that his queerness and his Muslim identity are intrinsic to his being, and they are not conflicting.
The emergence of these two figures is significant because their identities as both queer and Muslim are public, and they both have a profound connection to Islamic religiosity, residing in pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and being part of Islamic leader families. In contrast, other studies about Queer Muslims ‘simply’ categorize individuals as queer and practicing Islam without considering how closely their queerness is linked to Islamic practices. Alfikar and Ruhama also challenge the Western perspective that assumes LGBT individuals in Islamic-dominated countries, such as Indonesia, are oppressed and must forsake Islam to be ‘fully’ LGBT or vice versa. Both figures demonstrate that it is possible to reconcile both LGBT identity and Islam.
A Long and Winding Road
The relationship between Islam and the LGBT community is still a subject of debate. Efforts to foster a more compassionate understanding of LGBT issues are relatively recent and have been influenced by Indonesia’s 25-year-old democratic context. Furthermore, the number of active queer allies who promote a humanistic perspective on LGBT and Islam remains limited, numbering around 30-40 individuals across the archipelago. Even notable LGBT advocacy organizations like GAYa Nusantara and YIFoS have made significant strides by closely engaging with Islamic leaders and facilitating connections with like-minded global leaders through international conferences abroad, these praiseworthy initiatives should continue to be replicated.
Paving the way for a more reconciled relationship between LGBT and Islam requires a long and winding journey, and the discourse between these two narratives will continue to be contested. Along this path, the fear of Islamic groups towards the LGBT community, and conversely, the LGBT community’s fear of marginalization rooted in Islamic beliefs, will persist. Nevertheless, this marks a hopeful start toward fostering a more peaceful human life.
Acknowledgment: I consider myself an ally. While I may not have extensive firsthand experience with the LGBT community, I acknowledge that my view in this piece might be biased and may not fully capture their voices. I firmly believe that no one can articulate their experiences better than the individuals themselves.
Abdullah Faqih holds a BA in Sociology from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, with his final thesis focusing on the life history of an Indonesian transman Muslim. He is currently leading a research project that explores the idea of masculinity within the context of urban middle-class fatherhood in post-authoritarian Indonesia.