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Society

Indonesia's LGBTQ community angry at rise of conversion therapies

Islamic 'ruqyah' treatments include extreme methods such as rape and exorcism

LGBT activists shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta against a planned revision to Indonesia's criminal code to criminalize unmarried and gay sex, in this February 2018 file photo.   © AP

JAKARTA -- Kai Mata found herself at the center of a homophobic storm last year when she posted a video of herself online denouncing a draft of bill that included articles on forcing LGBTQ people to undergo conversion therapy to "cure" their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"I am Indonesian and LGBTQ+," the caption of the video posted on Twitter read. "Help stop a bill that would require conversion therapy here in the fourth-most populated country in the world."

Mata, a 22-year-old Bali-based lesbian singer-songwriter and one of the country's most outspoken LGBTQ activists, said received a around 400 hate messages and death threats within a day of posting the clip.

Undeterred, she continued writing very personal folk songs about her identity and issues surrounding the LGBTQ community.

But last month, she received a direct message on Instagram promoting ruqyah, or Islamic conversion therapy. The advertisement was for a website called terapikonversi.co that offers corrective rape, electroconvulsive therapy, and exorcism, telling her: "It's not too late to turn to God. Allah has not left you... Let us help you cast out the demon within you."

She angrily posted the advertisement on her Instagram account, and it turned out that at least a dozen of her fellow activists received the same message. She wrote a song about conversion therapy, hoping to share the view that LGBTQ identities don't need to be fixed.

"[I felt] violated due to being directly targeted with this jarring 'treatment' program," she told Nikkei Asia. "[It frustrated me] from the realization that many in Indonesia think we need 'curing,' as if we are a diseased, flawed part of our diverse population."

The administrator at terapikonversi.co was not immediately available to comment for this story. The website only has an email address, contact form, and an inactive Facebook account.

Although ruqyah has been used since the early days of Islam to cast out evil spirits, it is unclear as to when the practice began to target the LGBTQ community. The practice includes techniques such reciting verses from the Quran, immersing people in cold water, and more extreme methods including rape.

Dedi Natadiningrat, a cleric and practitioner of ruqyah at Cirebon Al Quran Therapy in West Java, said he had received "seven LGBTQ patients wishing to be cured" since he started his business in 2010.

"By the grace of Allah, I can say that one person I treated now has changed his orientation by 60%," Natadiningrat told Nikkei, without further elaborating what the percentage means. "But some others showed no change. Of course they can only be cured if God is willing."

Natadiningrat denied he ever practiced corrective rape, saying his practice only includes Quranic recitals.

Dr. Dina Listiorini, a lecturer at the Department of Communication at Atma Jaya University in Yogyakarta, said the rise of ruqyah to combat identity and sexual orientation can be traced back to early 2000 after the downfall of the authoritarian New Order regime under former dictator Suharto. At that time, conservative Muslims enjoyed greater freedom after being repressed for more than 30 years.

"The 2000s pop culture justified this notion," said Listiorini, who conducts extensive research on discrimination against LGBTQ community. "Islamic TV shows were everywhere, and at the same time the media started to depict LGBTQ public figures as outcasts."

A cleric performs an exorcism on people from the LGBT community at a clinic in Jakarta, in this November 2019 photo.   © AFP/Jiji

Despite the fact that homosexuality was ruled out as mental disorder and disease by the World Health Organization and in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in late 1980s, many conservative religious groups still say that it is a disease that is deviant and sinful.

"The campaign of ruqyah is an attempt to normalize what they see as abnormal or deviant," Listiorini said. "In the end, this homophobic campaign ends up in violence against gender plurality."

Moreover, sections of state apparatus have promoted and sponsored the vilification of the LGBTQ community.

The city of Pariaman in West Sumatra passed a regional law to fine LGBTQ community members for "disturbing public order" in 2018; the mayor of Padang, also in West Sumatra, led a two-kilometer rally to reject the presence of the community; and since 2019, the regional government of Depok city in West Java has repeatedly attempted to pass a law to ban the community.

Arus Pelangi, a Jakarta-based LGBTQ advocacy group, recorded more than 1,800 persecution cases against community members across Indonesia between 2006-2018. These findings may not reflect the true figure as incidents often go unreported and that some people feel hesitant to report to authorities for fear of repercussion.

Arif Nuh Safri, a cleric with the all-transgender Islamic boarding school Al Fatah in Yogyakarta, said no practice of ruqyah has proved to be effective.

"I heard from fellow clerics about ruqyah for LGBTQ. I said 'please prove it. You can come to Al Fatah anytime if you can prove it.' But nobody has come yet," Safri said. "How can you change the identity of who you are?"

Safri, a lecturer at State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, said some people had told him how they endured ruqyah in the past and how it traumatized them.

"All told the same," he said. "It was torture and inhumane."

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