Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Errant Tweet, Ignored Rights and an Indonesian President Out of Touch With the Times

In the wake of the threats and wrath coming from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) against the gay film festival in Jakarta, a Democratic Party politician questioned the need to have such a festival. Unwittingly, our honorable communications and information minister, Tifatul Sembiring, demonstrated just why public education about non-heterosexuality is an urgent issue in this country.

The minister, who is not exactly known to be a person consistently capable of making the kind of intelligent statements expected from an individual of his standing, posted his callous and ignorant jokes about homosexuality and AIDS on Twitter, causing yet another wave of ridicule for his predictably bizarre thoughts.

Still, Tifatul’s thinking on homosexuality and AIDS is not at all rare in Indonesia. In fact, it definitely is the norm.

Tifatul was only parroting what any rickshaw driver or vegetable vendor would tell you: that homosexuality is a disease and a mortal sin and that AIDS is spread because of homosexuality.

When someone as high up as Tifatul has such beliefs, it clearly demonstrates the absolute urgency of the Q! Film Festival, which has been silently educating Jakarta residents about issues of sexual orientation for several years.

Discrimination and hate crimes are still so common in this country that every effort to educate people in ways that will free them from their fears of, and violence against, “the other” should be warmly welcomed and supported.

It is not only sexual orientation that brings discrimination in our country of smiles and tolerance.

Our society is full of discrimination against women, against Chinese-Indonesians, against Ahmadi Muslims, against Batak Christians, against Madurese people, against dark-skinned eastern Indonesians, against indigenous beliefs.

As an indicator of how insensitive we are to the needs of others, we see that there is even widespread discrimination against the mainstream poor and the weak, such as children, the elderly and frail people.

At the root of this under-siege mentality of fear is deep-rooted ignorance, born of poverty and lack of access to quality information and education.

Often, when dealing with certain dogma-related issues, we find discrimination masquerading as religious teaching.

Because of the involvement of religion in promoting ignorance on issues such as gender and sexual orientation, discrimination is even more difficult to eradicate in Indonesia.

For this reason we must learn to consciously appreciate the courage of the likes of John Badalu, who initiated the Q! Film Festival, for sticking their necks out to educate people through art and culture, promoting tolerance and understanding and combating discrimination.

While we learn to make an effort to support citizens’ bold efforts to combat discrimination, we should not tire of calling out public officials who make ignorant and callous statements such as Tifatul’s pronouncements about homosexuality and AIDS, or, a little further back, the irresponsible comments by Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali about banning the Ahmadiyah Islamic faith.

As citizens we should not tire of shouting out loud and clear the fact that divisive and discriminatory statements coming from public officials are a threat to the integrity and very existence of our country.

Divisive and discriminatory statements from public officials as high up as a minister are surely very serious mistakes.

Indeed, they might also be seen as grave crimes, akin to treason, because they attack the very foundation of our independent republic and the very fabric of our pluralistic society.

Even without the help of blundering ministers, our society is ripping at the seams in many places.

The recent street brawl in Jakarta where thugs fired guns and chopped to death three members of an opposing gang was just one more incident in a string of eruptions of communal violence across the archipelago, from the remote Tarakan to the streets of the capital.

We have organizations like the FPI that feel it is their right to use threats and violence to fulfill their agendas, and while petty thieves who are caught might expect to be beaten to death, corrupt officials are defended by the prosecution in court.

Considering that at all levels of society there is a belief that justice is not something the state can guarantee its citizens, it’s a miracle we still have a country at all.

After all, one main reason behind organizing a state is to guarantee justice for its citizens — to protect people from the law of the jungle where might is right and the weak are preyed upon by the strong.

People have long been calling on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to act firmly against those undermining the culture of tolerance that we want our society to be known for.

Waiting so long to see him act, many have given up expecting any change until a regime shift several years from now.

The tragedy is that if we continue on this downward spiral we can expect far worse as 2014 approaches.

With demagogues seizing the opportunity to whip up emotions and manipulate the masses, the horrors of a collapsing state and society are too close for comfort.

What chance is there of the aloof SBY listening to pleas of reason to step in and halt the divisive actions of organizations and officials?

When a recent peaceful protest including elderly women at the Presidential Palace demanded justice over the disappearances of activists around the troubles of 1998, demonstrators were forcefully moved by the police and SBY continued to ignore the issue.

One would be forgiven for wondering whether or not our president has any inclination to answer these kinds of grievances at all.

All this indicates just how out of touch SBY has become.

By Bramantyo Prijosusilo artist, poet and organic farmer in Ngawi, East Java. (Jakarta Globe)

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