Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, May 14, 2012

Irshad Manji, a Threat to Indonesian Public Order?

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Don't worry, we have not forgotten about the blog, I promise! Yohanes and I have been busy the last 2-3 weeks finishing a paper (on Indonesian grand strategy) for publication. While working on that project, I did come across a story that captured my attention. It concerned Irshad Manji's adventures in Indonesia.

I'm sure some of you are familiar with Irshad Manji, a liberal public intellectual who has written popular books and appeared on television shows and networks like Real Time with Bill Maher, CNN, Fox News, and so on. She's Canadian, and also a Muslim and a lesbian. Apparently, the combination of these things--specifically, the fact that she's liberal, Muslim, and a lesbian--has upset the delicate world of a group of Muslim extremists in Indonesia. Let's review what happened.

On May 4, at a location in South Jakarta, Manji was scheduled to give a talk on her new book. About 15 minutes into the event, just before she began to speak, Indonesian police stepped in and canceled the rest of the proceedings, claiming that the organizers had failed to secure the proper permits to have a foreign speaker at the gathering.

At about the same time the police intervened, a number of local extremist agitators, upset and angry, began to cause a disturbance--apparently, both inside and outside the venue--allegedly because a lesbian Muslim planned to speak to a public audience. To the extremists, who are also Muslim, the idea of a lesbian Muslim is heretical. And the thought of Manji giving a public speech is even worse. After all, they wondered, what was the point of her talk? Did she plan on indoctrinating the Indonesian masses in her liberal, homosexual lifestyle?! According to a spokesman of the Islam Defender Front (FPI), a group whose members were among the rabble-rousers:

his group disregarded Irshad’s sexual identity but rejected her way to spread her principle, adding that her liberal standpoint is unacceptable. “We don’t mind her sexuality as long as she keeps it to herself. However, as she decides to spread her views [that Islam should accept homosexuality], it is a different story,” he told The Jakarta Post.
The next day, in defending , the police offered quite a a different reason for halting the book talk. No longer was the sole focus on the issue of permits. Jakarta Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Rikwanto stated:

There have been rejections from the local neighborhood and community units as well as an organization [FPI] against the book discussion. The locals urged that the event be ended because it discussed a sensitive issue.  
Besides, Irshad Manji is a lesbian activist and she was going to talk about a book that will offend what the majority of Muslims believe. We saw a potential for a public order disruption.

Unfortunately for Manji, her book launch continued to suffer setbacks while in Indonesia. On Saturday, May 5, she gave an hour long talk on her book. But while that took place, the venue was guarded by 50 members of Muslim youth organization (Banser NU), who applied a watchful eye on 100 members of FPI who stood in the rain to protest against Manji's book and the discussion of it.

There were other troubling signs. Consider this:

FPI Jakarta branch secretary-general Habib Novel insisted that the Canadian activist had been spreading views that Islam should accept homosexuality, which the group deemed “unacceptable”.
“Irshad Manji must leave this country, otherwise we will keep looking for her,” he said.
On Wednesday, the 9th, Manji's book discussion in Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta was canceled by university leaders for "security reasons." To Manji's supporters, like activist and politician Budiman Sudjatmiko, this was one more example of the hardliners and extremists--or religious fascists, as as Budiman called them--putting undue pressure on authorities, getting them to cave in to their demands. Budiman expressed his disappointment to The Jakarta Post: "This is a setback for all of us since universities should take a stand against any form of violence against the freedom of expression."

On the evening of that same day, May 9th, hundreds of people from the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) attacked participants in Manji's book discussion at the LKiS publishing office in Yogyakarta. Thugs broke down the door to the gathering, and once inside, vandalized the publisher’s office and Manji's books that were prominently and openly displayed. Even worse, though her supporters tried to protect her, Manji and her assistant suffered minor injuries from the attack; and dozens of people at the book event were beaten by the mob of Islamic extremists. According to The Jakarta Post, the MMI offered the following justification for the attack:

The MMI said Irshad’s so-called liberty and lesbianism propaganda was blasphemous toward Islam and that her teachings represented covert atheist propaganda
They also considered all those who facilitated Irshad’s event in Indonesia to be enemies of religion and the state.
So what does this chain of events mean? Some might claim that this says something about the state of Indonesian democracy. Maybe, but we have to be careful here. It's not that Islamists are derailing democracy, as some in the West might be tempted to say. After all, Islamist parties and candidates, especially extremist ones, have been marginalized though peaceful, democratic means. Indonesian voters have eschewed them, for the most part, and empowered more secular groups and candidates. Furthermore, Indonesians don't support violence, even violence committed in the name of Islam. And the threat from Islamic terrorists has been capably managed by Detachment 88, with able assistance from the U.S.

All of this tells us that Islamic extremism and violence has been effectively boxed in, contained, and as a result, both pose little to no existential threat to the Indonesian state or Indonesia's burgeoning democratic political system.

The events surrounding Manji show a different problem, though one that does impact Indonesian politics. Specifically, Indonesian institutions and leaders do not function as effectively, optimally as the country and its citizens need them to.

Here are some things to think about. Why wasn't Manji better protected by the police throughout her stay in the country? It's not as if the police were unaware of what could happen.Threats to her events and to her safety were public and well-known. More to the point, in the attack on the 9th, the police were supposedly notified ahead of time about threats to Manji. Yet there was no police presence at the book talk to deter the MMI thugs. Moreover, the police seemed to pin the blame for the constant threats, hostilities, and eventual violence on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Is this because the police force is simply an apathetic institution? Or did individual police officers side with the extremists? Or maybe the police is just an incompetent force? Whichever the case, there's trouble in the police ranks.

We should also consider the the role of failed leadership. What were regional and national leaders thinking? One would think there would be sufficient incentives for them to act, as the failure to do so only puts a stain on their political reputations. There were four days between the initial fiasco and the attack on the 9th. That's more than enough time for leaders to be aware of the dangers that Manji faced, coordinate with police on the ground, and put an action-plan in place to cope with the threats. Yet they failed.

In this environment, if few leaders and officials do their job, it's not too surprising that a small group of motivated Islamic extremists and criminals can wield some semblance of power. The dereliction of responsibilities can create a law and order vacuum that's waiting to be filled, even by misfits and criminals on a short-term basis.

Another result is that, as Amika Wardana recently pointed out, Indonesian hardliners have effectively put Islam in a straitjacket. Anything other than extremely conservative orthodoxy is ruled out and off limits. Concepts such as pluralism, liberalism, and secularism are rejected, and those who dabble in these areas are subject to punishment, usually by the hardliners, of course. This in turn encourages "anti-intellectualism, which clearly violates the freedom of religion and freedom of speech, the primary features of a democratic society."

This isn't just an Indonesian phenomenon, however. It's part of a broader trend in the world that plagues Islam today. Here's how: the very vocal and violent hardliners and extremists often dominate the public discourse of Islam. The moderates, fearful for their lives, unfortunately remain silent, afraid to confront the hardliners on their actions and views. They are more willing to voice their concerns and views outside of the eye of the hardliners, preferring, for instance, to operate in closed academic debates or quietly among friends and family. Yes, there are extremely brave people who do publicly stand up to the extremists, but they are usually the minority and too often suffer inhuman risks and consequences.

This situation has caused the West to malign the moderates unfairly, in my view. Over the last 11 years, scores of so-called pundits and analysts have wondered why Islamic moderates have not done more to counteract the hardliners. The implication, of course, is that by sitting on the sidelines, the moderates are also involved, serving as complicit co-conspirators to extremism and violence. This is nonsense. More properly, blame should be placed on the elites and leaders in Muslim countries. It is up to them to give the moderates enough space, freedom, and protection most importantly, to take on the hardliners and extremists when necessary. Under these conditions, the moderates can more easily coordinate with each other, speak their voice in public, and offer enough compelling counter-narratives to drown out the ideas and arguments of the crazies.

In this vein, I hope Indonesian authorities have learned enough from the incidents involving Manji to be more solicitous of the plight of Muslim moderates. It doesn't matter that the overwhelming majority of Indonesians have dismissed the hardliners as cranks and criminals and that the hardliners have been de-legtimized. The failure to protect and secure moderates--and by extension, the appearance that political elites lack political will--gives hardliners enough of an opening to spout dangerous anti-democratic, violent ideas, and can, in turn, embolden extremists to commit heinous acts.


  1. The Rhetoric of the hardliner has been deeply absorbed in the mind of the Indonesian people. Quietly the majority of Indonesian Muslims support the extremists, there is no silent majority. Of course, when asked, most will consider themselves moderate and tolerant, they will support anything that advanced the dominance of Islam in Indonesia.

  2. Yohanes Sulaiman here:

    No, the majority of Indonesian Muslims do not support the extremists. Their view in this matter, however, more of indifference.

    Yes, the deeply conservative Indonesians might find what she said to be disagreeable, simply because she is very liberal. At the same time, they will not bother to do anything, simply because they don't care.

    While Irshad Manji is well known in the US and Canada, you will find it very difficult to find Indonesians who are aware with either Irshad Manji or her views.

    The recent protests over the movie deemed to be insulting to Moslems is the evidence of this indifference. The only ones bothered to come out to stage a protest in front of the US embassy were the usual suspects: FPI, the thuggish organization that is deeply unpopular in Indonesia anyway, and Indonesia's version of Moslem Brotherhood (Hizbut Tahrir). The rest? They don't care.