Irshad Manji

by Tabitha Kidwell

Barack Obama’s statement last week in support of same sex marriage was undoubtedly a huge step forward for gay rights in America. It was especially meaningful for me in juxtaposition to some dramatic events that occurred in Central Java on Wednesday night. Irshad Manji, a Canadian muslim activist, is visiting Indonesia to discuss her new book Allah, Liberty, and Love, and to start a dialogue about moral courage, thinking critically about your faith, and free speech. She also happens to be a lesbian. Her visit here has been extremely controversial, but not because of her outspoken criticism of Islam and call for reform. (Honestly, such an outcry would be somewhat justified – her books are a pretty strong affront to conventional Islam. They made me a little uncomfortable and I’m not even the target audience!) Instead, the major concern among protesters is her sexual orientation and the fact that she is trying to spread a “lesbian agenda.” This is pointedly inaccurate – Ms. Manji’s message does not even touch on gay rights. Many protesters admittedly were ignorant of her message, but were incensed that a lesbian could even think of calling herself a Muslim. One of the protesters who participated in the violent shut-down of a book signing in Jakarta said he he was there because: “This Irshad is a lesbian. Do you want this country to be a lesbian?” Um, what?

With all this controversy in the air, I was really excited to hear that STAIN Salatiga had agreed to have Ms. Manji come speak last Tuesday. I hadn’t heard of her before, but I downloaded and read her books and was really excited to meet such a courageous woman and fresh voice in Islam. I was a little nervous about the event, for one, because I know she would really challenge the conservative faculty members here, and also because of the potential for violence. I actually considered bringing my hammer in my backpack just in case some hoodlums showed up. The administration here was nervous, too – they cancelled the event, then rescheduled it in a smaller venue and only invited a select group of faculty members. Being a basically secret event, it wasn’t quite a resounding show of free speech, but it did go well (I didn’t need the hammer, at least.) The lecturers, even if they didn’t agree with her message, were welcoming, polite, and very willing to engage in dialogue and consider her viewpoints. I was especially impressed by her evidently thoughtful nature: as she was walking out, she spotted some secretaries huddled behind a desk looking on with admiration. She stopped her entourage (even though they were late for their next event) and made those ladies’ day by taking a picture with them. Then, my counterpart and I were standing by the door as she headed out, and I said “good luck, stay safe.” She turned around and said “Thanks, Tabitha, thanks Hanung!” We looked at each other in awe – we had met her for about 5 seconds and she remembered our names?!?! She was just so gracious and kind. I think many of my colleagues were prepared for a rude and confrontational woman, and were really shocked by the fact that she was truly kind and peaceful. I think they will rethink many of their assumptions about homosexuality, liberal Islam, and the idea of questioning one’s own faith.

Unfortunately, the attendees at Ms. Manji’s last event in Indonesia (in Yogya, a town about 3 hours south of Salatiga) didn’t have that same experience. Men in helmets and masks broke in, smashed plates, and assalted the innocent people in attendance. As in Jakarta, the main reason they were doing so was because of misplaced homophobia. That just shows how far Indonesia still has to come in terms of gay rights. But the fact that this protest occurred in Yogya means that the victims were not going to take it quietly. Yogya is known for its liberalism, and because of these events, there was a huge protest last weekend in support of free speech. Even if the thugs who shut down Irshad Manji’s event were up in arms because of homosexuality, what came out of it was a renewed commitment to free speech and increased interest in what Ms. Manji is actually saying. Hopefully this will help move Indonesia one stop closer to being a country where even controversial muslim activists can share their ideas, and where a future Indonesian president might one day be able to show the same moral courage Obama did last Wednesday!

Irshad Manji at STAIN Salatiga:

A very different scene the next evening in Yogya. It was truly cowardly to attack innocent, unarmed people with sticks and metal bars while wearing motorcycle helmets. (Photo Credit: Mark Woodward)

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