The gay issue in Malaysia and Indonesia as a window into the civilisational crisis of the Islamic world


(Beware: approx 3,500 words)

LGBT Malaysians are unlikely to see a significantly better situation in their country for at least two decades, quite possibly not in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, LGBT Indonesians are facing unexpectedly chilly headwinds, and things will get worse before they get better. To understand why, it is important to see that the issue has nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity. These individuals and their lives are collateral damage from a much bigger event that is going on: a long collapse in civilisational Islam.

Civilisational cycles are centuries in the making; that is why the short- to medium-term outlook is so bleak.

Earlier this year, The Diplomat and Rappler — the latter is a Philippines-based publication — had two detailed articles describing recent trends in Indonesia. The Diplomat wrote:

Over the last few months Indonesia has experienced a dramatic increase in discrimination and hate speech toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, the severity of which has come as a shock to many.


In February, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu described LGBT groups as attempting to “brainwash” through a type of “proxy war.” He even went so far as to say LGBT people are more dangerous than a nuclear war, which is not only offensive, but indicates an alarming set of priorities for a defense minister.

On February 25, former Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring tweeted that homosexuals should be killed. He has over one million followers.

— The Diplomat, 23 March 2016, Indonesia’s Worrying Shift on LGBT Rights

Hendri Yulius

Hendri Yulius

Three weeks earlier, the Rappler article quoted Hendri Yulius, a researcher on gender studies, as he described an Indonesia “entering neoconservatism.”

He also said there is some evidence that radicalism is growing “among young generations particularly among universities.”

“If these groups are gaining more power, it’s not impossible we will adopt a more conservative identity as our national identity, and our national values,” he said. “This is for me very frightening and an issue that has to be immediately resolved if we don’t want to be an oppressive, authoritarian and anti-diversity country.”

Yulius said the anti-LGBT sentiment comes amid what he called a “trend,” that has also seen the government crack down on alcohol and prostitution. He said he noticed the rise in anti-LGBT sentiment after Republika, a conservative Islamic publication, posted a headline story on January 24, entitled: “LGBT poses serious threat to nation.”

The news article interviewed several conservative public figures, and sparked a “snowballing effect” which led to other government officials expressing their own opinions and views against LGBT.

—, 1 March 2016, Anti-LGBT sentiment rises: Is Indonesia becoming more conservative?

Up north in Malaysia, a recent op-ed in the New Straits Times reveals much about the tone of the discourse there. Here are some choice snippets:

Disquieting developments are taking place all over the world in the name of popularising homosexuality, which is rendered unlawful and defined as an accursed sin by God in the Quran. Last month, an openly gay man was assigned as a leader of the United States army for the first time. Starting his job as a secretary of the army, Eric Fanning has become the second highest-ranking official in the army’s chain of command after Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter.


Similar developments are taking place in Europe as well. In the United Kingdom, Theresa May, who supports homosexuality, is now the prime minister. In Scotland, many party leaders are either homosexuals or openly support it. Belgium, Luxembourg and Iceland are governed by homosexual prime ministers.


As homosexuality becomes more and more widespread and widely accepted, the world will fall into even more terrible degeneracy and acts of violence will increase even further.

— New Straits Times, 23 August 2016, The homosexual agenda by Harun Yahya

After having laid out the dangerous spread of both homosexuality and a culture of acceptance, writer Harun Yahya leaps to new levels of hyperbole, warning about the coming attack on Islam.

The world of Islam is the target of ceaseless homosexual propaganda. Today, with dark propaganda spread through television, movies and the Internet, homosexuality is knocking on the door of Muslims around the world.


They strive hard to render the world of Islam weak and defenseless; Muslims are being confronted with an agenda that is well-planned, well-organised, well-funded and unyielding. This agenda is determined to break the resistance of the Islamic world, just as they successfully broke the resistance of the Judeo-Christian world.

— ibid.

I really recommend that you read the whole article.  It’s quite breathtaking, both in its shallowness and its narrowness. It simply assumes with no discussion that homosexual orientation is necessarily bad and and those who identify as gay are unworthy. It would be as if I wrote a whole article on the assumption that apples are root vegetables, and spend many paragraphs excoriating its “root” nature without once pausing to examine the assumption that it is a root, beyond mentioning that (my) God said it. You will also notice that the article is exclusively addressed to Muslim readers (even though the New Straits Times is a general audience newspaper), and speaks stridently to their sense of (beseiged) identity.

Although the contributor of this article, Harun Yahya (real name: Adnan Oktar), is Turkish — he has his own site — many other religious, political and opinion leaders in Malaysia have said similar things. There’s nothing isolated about the ideas expressed in the op-ed.


Muslim gay rights story will not follow the West

There is a tendency to take the view that the LGBT struggle within Muslim communities is similar to that which has been going on in the West, with perhaps a time displacement of a few decades. The resulting belief is that in time, the progress that societies in Europe, North and South America have seen will appear in Muslim countries as well.

The first problem I detect is that such an idea contains a trace of West-centrism: the notion that where the West has led, others will follow.

I can understand why it is easy to adopt such a complacent model. The language that Harun Yahya is using — even the title of his article ‘The homosexual agenda’ — is strongly reminiscent of countless articles that have appeared in the West warning of the dangers to (Western) civilisation should gay people have their rights and freedoms respected. The sense of déja vu we get lulls us into thinking that this is a rerun of a familiar drama.

But I argue here that the underlying dynamics are different. The clue lies in a few phrases I quoted from Harun Yahya, and repeated by many other speakers. You see a motif of the West using homosexuality as a battering ram against Islam. It indicates that the LGBT battlelines are seen as part of a wider struggle. It would be very tempting for one to speak of this as some kind of broad inter-devotional conflict, but I doubt if religion itself is central to the matter, or that it sufficiently explains the attitudes and actions we have seen. To merely describe it as religiously-driven would be too reductive. I think we can understand it better when we see it as an entire civilisation in crisis.

I am immediately aware that we can slice civilisations in multiple ways. Even in the Middle East, the Egyptian civilisation is quite different from that of the Levant and from that of Arabia (and Yemen is distinct too), let alone those of non-Arab speaking peoples such as the Persians and Turks. Malays and Indonesians are even more removed. But one can also speak of a broad Islamic civilisation, and at least to the degree that Malays and Indonesians base a large part of their constructed identities upon Islam and what they import from the Middle East, they are part of that Islamic civilisational world. The crises that afflict the Middle East impact and shape their identities too. If they detect parallels between their social, economic or strategic situation with the countries in the Middle East, it will be easy to feel common cause.

The prime minister's grandiose office in Malaysia's capital, Putrajaya, has no Malay influences, but much from Central Asia and Iran

The prime minister’s grandiose office in Malaysia’s capital, Putrajaya, has no Malay influences, but much from Central Asia and Iran

How much a part of the Islamic civilisation the Malays and Indonesians are will always be fluid. As with all satellite regions of the faith and culture, there will be the push and pull of local cultural and historical identities. The stronger, the more deeply-rooted a local identity, the less need there is to rely on importing from the Middle East, or relying on Islam. Potentially, to be Javanese, Bengali or Moroccan can have very substantial meaning. But where a local cultural tradition is historically thin and thus harder to draw pride from, the reflex may well be to identify more strongly with the core Islamic civilisation, by way of compensation. The reflected glory, the imagined power in numbers, the deep cultural resources… what’s not to like, adopt and identify with?

By the same token, where a country is doing well economically, it can draw more pride from its local identity and its modernity. If it is doing poorly, and therefore its ‘localness’ is a source of embarrassment, its people will tend to lean more on the mythical grandeur of Islamic civilisation.

The foregoing is really a long way for me to say that however much there may be local cultural histories, Malays and Indonesians are to some and varying extent, also a part of this rather amorphous thing called Islamic civilisation. The identities of many people in Malaysia and Indonesia are inextricably linked to cultural trends in other Muslim countries.


Only after the West tipped over into acceptance

The LGBT issue was a non-topic within Islam in the 1990s when I first participated in gay activism. Then, virtually all discussion of religion and sexual orientation took place within the context of Christianity.

At that time, I even used to joke that Muslim clerics didn’t have the time to go around attacking gay people; they were too busy trying to suppress women.

It was only in the late 1990s and the early noughties that I began to see mention of homosexuality by leading Muslim voices — almost always in condemnatory tone.

Once again, there will be the tendency to view it as Islam following the path of the West’s Christianity, with time displacement. However, I have a different reading. It goes like this: So long as the majority opinion in the West was anti-gay — and this was so right up to the turn of the century — the anti-gay teachings of traditional Islam provided no distinction. But once opinion shifted in the West and whole societies moved to be accepting of differing sexual orientation — and in many countries, same-sex marriage too — it became possible to use the gay issue as a distinguishing mark of, and a rallying cry for, Islamic identity.

This is exactly what you see in Harun Yahya’s utterings.


Why does the Islamic world need rallying cries?

But why is there even a need for rallying? Why is that rallying so effective — to the extent that that extreme, rejectionist and militant attitudes have enough adherents to fuel wars and destabilise whole regions?

The New York Times had an essay on 26 August titled Saudis and extremism: ‘Both arsonists and the firefighters’, in which much responsibility is laid at the feet of the Saudi regime and its pact with the Wahhabi stream of Islam. But the essay also contains a differing opinion:

Yet some scholars on Islam and extremism, including experts on radicalization in many countries, push back against the notion that Saudi Arabia bears predominant responsibility for the current wave of extremism and jihadist violence. They point to multiple sources for the rise and spread of Islamist terrorism, including repressive secular governments in the Middle East, local injustices and divisions, the hijacking of the internet for terrorist propaganda, and American interventions in the Muslim world from the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq. The 20th-century ideologues most influential with modern jihadists, like Sayyid Qutb of Egypt and Abul Ala Maududi of Pakistan, reached their extreme, anti-Western views without much Saudi input.

This broader reading makes more sense to me.

I also think it is crucially important not to read what’s happening as an essentially religious or Islamic phenomenon. I find it more helpful to see it as first a civilisation in crisis, and consequently in its flailing about and looking for a way out of crisis, a grasping at what it is most familiar with: Islam. This is especially as the early Islamic caliphates (Umayyad and Abbasid) were periods of great cultural and scientific flowering. Glorious ancestors make sturdy bedrocks. This explains why there is a lot of looking backwards as people in the Islamic world struggle to find dignity in the present age.

So what if we're poor? We have the riches of Islam.

So what if we’re poor? We have the riches of Islam.

In many Muslim-majority countries, ordinary folk see around them economic stagnation, authoritarianism, and blighted futures. The lack of economic, social and political progress wreaks havoc with self-worth (at a group or national level). Human psychology will always find ways to compensate. Besides recollections of past glory, assertions of moral superiority and unparalleled piety come in useful. These have the added benefit of being ultimately subjective, with no easy way to measure, unlike GDP, democracy, human health or technological prowess. The evil West cannot readily knock down their compensatory claims of moral and revelatory ascendancy if there is no objective yardstick.

Reliance on moral and spiritual supremacy as counterpoint to the humiliation of bad governance and throttled development is lubricated by the fact that societies with poor education and social conservatism are typically also societies where clerics retain much influence. Even non-clerics (such as politicians in Malaysia and Indonesia) who want to get attention and sound authoritative find they have to speak like clerics, making references to Islamic teaching in order to give traction to their points.

In short, Islam is not the main reason why the Muslim world is in crisis — though its social prohibitions and doctrinal rigidity in many of today’s common interpretations would surely also have a role to play — but it is exceptionally useful as a safety blanket for people to cling to once the crisis started.

It also explains a few more facets:

  1. In order to be an effective counterpoint to economic, social and political stagnation, assertions of moral superiority need to made loudly. It is loudness that gives the counterpoint force and weight. It needs to drown out the daily humiliations experienced and shout down regular criticisms coming from the developed world.
  2. However, since assertions of moral superiority and past grandeur (or purity) will do little to solve today’s material and social problems (without curing which, pride cannot be restored), each round of rallying will be proven ineffective. Escalation then results. With each iteration, the rallying calls become more militant.
  3. A trope of martyrdom is woven into the rhetoric. This is because assertions of moral superiority are always vulnerable to accusations that they amount to little more than hot air. There is no better proof of sincerity and genuine belief than sacrifice.
  4. The individuals most susceptible to these rallying calls — to defend the honour of their spat-upon, trodden-upon people — are the ones who feel the spitting and treading most acutely. They are not your goatherds in the remote districts of Mali, whose world barely stretches beyond three valleys; these chaps don’t know enough of the outside, non-Muslim world, to feel the humiliation. The individuals most susceptible, and most likely to become foot-soldiers and enforcers in the ‘jihad’ against the evil West and everything modern, including LGBT rights, are those with enough education and exposure to feel the hurt.
  5. Piety, as mentioned above, may be one of the elements of moral superiority, but when deployed as a weapon in civilisational defence, it manifests primarily as pietistic showmanship — the same way that claims of moral superiority have to be made loudly. Thus the long beards, archaic clothes, and absurdist extremes of ritual cleanliness.


The Chinese civilisational crisis as analogy

A civilisational crisis is not a problem that can be worked through easily or quickly. In this part of the world, we have a rather instructive parallel from not long ago: China.

A beheading, said to be during the Boxer Rebellion in China.

A beheading, said to be during the Boxer Rebellion in China.

China spiralled into a civilisational crisis around the time of the Opium Wars in 1840. It had already suffered a long period of stagnation and ossification before that. In my estimation, it took China about 150 years, to 1990, before it managed to climb out of that funk. In that century and a half, it suffered repeated revolutions, civil wars (in the plural), state collapse and regional warlordism, foreign invasions and occupation, and two episodes strikingly similar to ‘jihadist’ wars. One was the Boxer rebellion that aimed to rid China of all foreign influences — and which very quickly led to an invasion by a coalition of Western powers; the other was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This year (2016) marks the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution’s start. The murderous and chaotic ten years that followed (1966 – 1976) had mobs going around smashing all bourgeouis influences — the accumulated accretions of comfort and class snobbery — in the hope of returning Chinese society to an imagined puristic re-beginning. (Underneath all that fighting however, old political scores were no doubt settled as well.)

Through the first half (1840 till about 1915) of this long Chinese civilisational crisis, the main tension was between modernising (which largely meant copying the West) and rediscovering its past strengths. The latter involved much debate about how Chinese society, culture and learning had gone ‘soft’ through the centuries; the implication was that reinvigoration required a return to fundamentals, and an expurgation of ‘bad’ influences. This kind of thinking should be strikingly familiar in these days of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Daesh.

The second half of the Chinese civilisational crisis is where it got interesting. The appeal and effectiveness of returning to old fundamentals having been emphatically discredited and defeated, from about 1915 onwards the struggles were about (a) which of the many old attitudes and old ways to smash, and (b) what new revolutionary ideas from outside China to adopt. These struggles would prove even more violent and intractable than the first period.

The result today is a civilisation that, while still recogniseably Chinese, has very little hankering for a mythical pure past. It has ‘moved on’. Only crackpots spout Confucius in hope of winning arguments. Nobody considers bound feet worth reintroducing. Even the language changed. First, literary Chinese fell out of favour with baihua becoming the new standard, and then a ‘national language’ was designed, followed shortly after by the disembowelling of the  traditional Chinese script, superseded by the simplified script. (This is not to say that China does not have new problems that need to be dealt with.)


The Islamic civilisational crisis is only just beginning

I think the Islamic world is going through something similar. It’s been a long time since its last apogee, when Suleiman the Magnificent (born 1491, reigned 1520 – 1566) was the Sultan in Istanbul and Caliph over all Muslims. There was been a slow decline ever since.

Aside: What is interesting is that few ‘defenders’ of Islamic civilisation today reference this period, preferring to highlight earlier periods when Damascus and Baghdad were the centres of cultural, scientific and political power. I suspect this is because, being Saudi-led, today’s proponents of Islamic glory are uncomfortable with the fact that Suleiman and the Ottomans were not Arabs but Turks.

The dome of the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul

The dome of the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul

What is depressing is that, going by the Chinese example — not that the Islamic world’s crisis must necessarily follow the same arc — the Islamic world’s crisis is still in the first phase, where the contest is between modernising and radical retreat into purer origins. This suggests that a nadir lies ahead, and there is a long, long road to go.

Which is why I began this essay by saying I don’t see improvements for LGBT persons in Malaysia or Indonesia for decades to come.

As epilogue, perhaps I should touch on why it has been so much easier for gay people to gain acceptance in the West. Far from being a harbinger of global progressivism, the developments we have seen in the last 30 years in the West may stand as quite anomalous when viewed a hundred years hence. The deadlock and backsliding we see in the Islamic world may be more typical. Gay rights in Africa and Russia may have a hard time more akin to the experience in the Islamic world than the (relatively) easy passage in the West.

The key difference lies in the fact that there are vast contextual differences between Western civilisation and the Islamic world. The former is self-confident (some may even say arrogant), and generally comprise countries at peace and economically better off. When a civilisation is secure, it can afford to be generous and accommodating. Change does not entail any loss of face. Moreover, Western civilisation has a long tradition of valuing liberalism and competition. Not least, the states within this civilisational ambit mostly have political mechanisms to resolve differences.

None of these attributes can be said to be in place in most parts of the Islamic world. Or Africa for that matter. And that’s why I think the gay rights story in these places will prove a much rougher and longer ride.


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