Indonesia’s most influential body of Islamic legal scholars this month issued a controversial fatwa against homosexuals and transgender people, ordering that those who engage in “vile” and “deviant” acts with members of the same sex should face the death penalty.
But the edict from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) cannot be enforced because the body cannot pass or enforce laws and its fatwas are not legally binding, experts say. Others argue that the fatwa violates the human rights of a specific group.
"Only the state has the right to take legal action," Saleh P. Daulay, a parliamentarian who chairs Commission VIII in the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR), told BenarNews.
The MUI announced its fatwa against gays, lesbians and transsexual people at a news conference in Jakarta on March 3.
"Sodomy, homosexuals, gays, and lesbians are forbidden in Islamic law, and are vile acts that are punishable by the death penalty," HasanuddinAbdul Fatah, chairman of the MUI’s Fatwa Commission, told reporters.
"It does not matter that they (gays and lesbians) are in love. Within Islamic law, this sexual act should be severely punished. It would be bad if the government allowed same-sex marriage," he said.
Asrorun Niam Sholeh, a member of MUI’s fatwa commission, explained the reasoning behind its edict.
"The rationale of this fatwa is due to the increasing number of cases of sexual crimes that deviate from Islamic teachings. MUI as an Islamic organization is paying attention to the increasing number of similar cases in the community," he told BenarNews.
As Indonesia's top Islamic clerical body, MUI has a responsibility for providing Muslims with moral guidance, he said.
"We want Indonesian Muslims to live in a society based on Islamic teachings," he said.
Speaking out for LGBT rights
The edict calling for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people to face capital punishment because of their sexuality has angered some activists.
They have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else, said Dede Utomo, an LGBT activist.
Acceptance of homosexuality can develop if people are educated about gender and sexuality, Dede told BenarNews.
"There needs to be a comprehensive approach. The death penalty will not help resolve this issue," he said.
"MUI should not be making this kind of statement. Homosexuality is not a criminal act, and it is not a form of deviance. If someone says homosexuality is a deviant act, that is a personal preference," said Haris Azhar, an activist with the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS).
At the national level, homosexuality is not outlawed in Indonesia, but its many provinces can adopt their own set of laws.
For example, in Aceh province, the only state that enforces sharia law, same-sex acts are punishable by up to 100 lashes of the cane and 100 months in prison, according to the Jakarta Globe.
But homosexuals can be prosecuted at the national level under an anti-pornography law implemented in 2008.
The law does not mention “homosexuality” by name, but its provisions cover sodomy and “sexually deviant acts.” Violations carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to Rp. 5 billion (U.S. $384,000).
According to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, “The Pornography Law’s passage marked a major success for Islamist fundamentalists, who have been using Wahhabi (ultra conservative) interpretations of [Sharia] law to enforce a variety of other restrictive practices.”
The law’s passage has resulted in violence and other hatred being incited against LGBT people, the commission says on its website.
“The cumulative impact of these developments has been that activists have faced virulent homophobia and transphobia, and that less politicized members of the LGBT community have been driven back into the closet.”
Living in the shadows
Cecelia (not a real name), a 29-year-old transgender, began to be attracted to people of the same sex from the age of 13.
It’s not easy to live as a homosexual in Indonesia, Cecilia said.
"From the age of puberty, I have never had an interest in the opposite sex. So I do not quite understand what ‘normal’ is. But because of the public perception that normal is attraction to the opposite sex, I started to withdraw myself from society," Cecilia told BenarNews.
"Even though I have been living in Jakarta for more than half my life, the stigma against homosexuals is very pronounced. That stigma is one of the reasons I didn’t go to college,” Cecilia added.