(CNSNews.com) – At a time when the United Nations is promoting its “Free & Equal’ campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality, the world’s biggest Islamic country is pushing back, with politicians speaking out on the issue and a government ministry drafting a law prohibiting online content viewed as promoting homosexuality.
Indonesia’s communications and information ministry has set up a panel to pursue the matter at the urging of lawmakers, a spokesman told the Jakarta Post at the weekend.
Earlier, a key parliamentary commission dealing with defense, foreign affairs and information called on the ministry to create a law to stop “LGBT propaganda.”
The commission’s chairman, Mahfudz Siddiq, told the Jakarta Post last week that “LGBT issues can damage national security, identity, culture and the faith of Indonesians.”
In recent weeks Indonesian government ministers and Islamic clerics have spoken out against what Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu characterized as a security threat and religious figures called “deviant” behavior. At the same time some have also cautioned against expressing hatred towards or abuse of LGBT people.
The controversy erupted when the country’s higher education minister, Muhammad Nasir, called in January for LGBT people to be barred from universities because “there are standards of values and morals to uphold.”
Indonesia’s highest Muslim religious body, the Ulama Council, then called for “LGBT activities” to be prohibited by law.
Around the same time, the U.N. Postal Administration in early February issued a set of six commemorative stamps to promote the “Free & Equal” campaign – the first time the world body has issued stamps with an LGBT theme.
The move brought protests from a group of mostly Islamic member-states – including Indonesia – calling itself Friends of the Family coalition, which said the decision “effectively seeks to promote priorities and agenda on matters of sexual orientation and gender identity that are supported by a distinct minority of the U.N. member states yet are vehemently and as a matter of strongly held principle opposed by the rest of the organization’s membership.”
Days later, in response to reports of an $8 million project to support LGBT rights in southeast Asia, funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Vice-President Jusuf Kalla asked the U.N. agency not to finance any such programs in Indonesia.
Kalla told media the government had been assured that the funds were to be used elsewhere in the region, not in Indonesia.
Around the same time, Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin told lawmakers that LGBT promotion should not be allowed to alter Indonesia’s religious values. But he also urged citizens not to display hostility or hateful behavior towards LGBT individuals.
Later in February Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Muslim organization in Indonesia – reported to have as many as 40 million members – issued a statement calling non-heterosexual orientation incompatible with human nature.
It called on lawmakers to pass a law criminalizing homosexuality, and providing for “rehabilitation for every person who has LGBT characteristics.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a reformist whose election in 2014 was warmly welcomed by the U.S. government, has not spoken out publicly in the debate.
Under President Obama, who lived in Indonesia for three years as a child and recently welcomed hosted Widodo and others at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in California, the State Department has made promotion of LGBT rights a foreign policy priority.
APCOM, an Asia-Pacific coalition advocating on HIV and same-sex issues, has spoken out against “the recent unprecedented, sustained attacks” against LGBT people in Indonesia.
“We are gravely concerned that growing anti-LGBT sentiment in Indonesia and elsewhere represents a significant threat to our quest for freedom and equality,” said the group’s executive director, Midnight Poonkasetwattana.
“These words and actions unacceptably legitimize discrimination towards LGBT in society,” he said.
With a population of 256 million, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and the fourth most populous overall (after China, India and the United States).
A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found greater opposition to the question, “Should society accept homosexuality?” in Indonesia than in any of the other Asia-Pacific countries surveyed – 93 percent. (Opposition was higher in several countries in Africa and the Middle East, with Jordan at 97 percent and Nigeria at 98 percent.)
Although homosexuality is not now criminalized in Indonesian national law LGBT rights are not supported in law. The State Department in its most recent annual human rights report said Indonesia’s antidiscrimination law does not apply to LGBT individuals, and that the government in 2014 took practically no action to prevent discrimination against LGBT people.
Indonesia is not one of the 75 countries where same-sex sexual acts are illegal, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). But they do carry penalties in at least two provinces in the archipelago, including one, Aceh, where shari’a holds sway.