Is Indonesia Experiencing A Diversity Crisis?

A diversity crisis might be heading to Indonesia as many locals begin to plead for the reestablishment of racial and religious tolerance in the country. But recent studies suggest that the nation might actually be doing just fine.

As the world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia is indeed no stranger to religious, ethnic and cultural diversity. Earlier this month, President Jokowi asked his people to celebrate the archipelago’s diversity during a commemoration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad on January 8.

“Indonesia has more than 700 ethnic groups with 1,100 local languages and this shows the diversity. The diversity is a gift from God we have always to be grateful for. We have 34 provinces and 516 regencies and cities. Let’s maintain our unity. We need unity. ‘NKRI Harga Mati!’ [The Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia is undisputed],” Jokowi said as reported by The Jakarta Post.

Last year, we saw an intense debate surrounding diversity that in a way reminded us why the issue of discrimination towards minority groups in this country is far from over.

When local academics and authorities, for example, proposed to criminalize homosexuality and claimed that the existence of the LGBT community defied Indonesia’s religious and moral values, many wondered if the country actually protects the rights of its own people at all.

It all started in January of last year, when the Minister of Higher Education Muhammad Nasir announced that he wanted to bar LGBT student organizations from university campuses. The news soon created uproar towards the LGBT community, with mass religious groups forcing the country to free itself from these ‘sinful acts’. Several psychiatrists declared that same-sex orientation is equivalent to ‘mental illness’. The national broadcasting commission (KPI) called for censorship on TV and radio programmes that portrayed LGBT behaviour, and some mothers in the archipelago broadcasted messages of fear and concern for their children via social media.

But with all these anti-LGBT sentiments, not many of us are actually well informed about the local LGBT community. I recently sat down with Ferena Debineva and Nadya Karima Melati, co-founders of the Support Group and Resource Centre on Gender and Sexuality Studies (SGRC) at the University of Indonesia (UI), which Nasir referred to when he spoke out against the operation of LGBT movements at formal institutions. Debineva and Melati shed light on why so many Indonesians today are still promoting hateful rhetoric towards the LGBT community.

“The government officials [who called out the LGBT community in 2016] really don’t know what they are saying. Our government previously played it safe by not releasing any policies against LGBT, although not necessarily protecting their human rights. They claimed to stand with human rights, but they also said that it should also be ‘adapted’ to the nation’s existing norms and values. So at that time, the people panicked because the statements [promoting hate speech towards LGBT people] were repeated non-stop for three months,” Debineva told Indonesia Expat.

Both Debineva and Melati also revealed that government officials are not the only ones dealing with misunderstanding about the LGBT community. Even some academics are similarly experiencing the same issue with accepting the rights of LGBT people.

“That kind of fear is based on the myth and taboo related to sexuality, while all this time they can’t really discuss it. And the media’s framing consequently contributed to the preservation of stigma and discrimination towards the LGBT community that worsens people’s understanding about it,” Debineva explained.

Responding to acts of prejudice, the discussion of tolerance began to take centre stage as the media and academics showed us that plenty of locals still surprisingly fail to promote tolerant values on a daily basis, even in cities like Jakarta. Last August, non-profit organization Wahid Foundation, in collaboration with research institute Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) revealed the results of a survey, which claimed that as many as 59.9 percent of 1,520 respondents hated a particular group, including non-Muslims, the Chinese and communists.

On a different note, findings revealed by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) in November, suggested that the level of intolerance for non-Muslims is in fact quite low. The survey disclosed that the majority of the Indonesian population was against groups like ISIS, the LGBT community, communists, Jews, Christians, the Islamic Defenders Front, Wahhabi Muslims (the movement Wahhabism is believed to be the driving force behind global radical terrorism) and lastly, the Chinese community.

Yet, in contrast to the Wahid Foundation’s and LSI’s results, those obtained from SMRC prove that the tolerance for non-Muslims in the archipelago is still there. This came as good news for SMRC’s communication researcher and UI lecturer Ade Armando, who thinks that Indonesians overall still have respect for diversity.

“The majority of Indonesians do not approve of ISIS and radical ideologies, which is good. But they are still struggling to accept the LGBT community, who came in second on the list, because the term itself has only been introduced to the nation over the last decade. And the way people practice their religious beliefs here might perhaps have something to do with this. The third one is the communist [group], and this is understandable due to the people’s trauma of tragedies in the past. But in general, Indonesians do not actually see people who are non-Muslims as a problem,” Armando said.

Following up on the case of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), who is accused of committing religious blasphemy, the nation was immediately polarized. But looking at a man who has worked incessantly to build the capital city, some feel that the case is more of a testament to the nation’s religious arrogance rather than a quest for justice. Furthermore, Ahok’s case seems to reiterate the locals’ long-standing problem with Chinese-Indonesians, especially when they take on the role of a prominent leader in the nation.

That said, Armando thinks that Ahok’s case is more concerned with Indonesia’s political drama, and therefore cannot be entirely used to represent the nation’s diversity crisis.

“Of course there is truth to the need for tolerance and respect for diversity. But if we take a look at Ahok’s case, it is actually more of a political one. There are many non-Muslim leaders across the archipelago and the people are okay with that,” Armando said. “So I think the idea of a diversity crisis in Indonesia might not exactly be appropriate for our time now.”

While it might take a while for Indonesia to become a peaceful, tolerant and multicultural nation, I still hope that one day we can get there. Just as long as we learn to confront our fear and remember to practice what we preach. As the national motto of Indonesia suggests, we should believe in “Bhineka Tunggal Ika” or “Unity in Diversity”.

 

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Caranissa is an editor at Indonesia Expat. She occassionally writes, dances and performs on stage.


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