Islamic Exorcisms Used as a ‘cure’ for Homosexuality in Indonesia: ‘If I am Muslim, I can’t be gay’
JAKARTA, Indonesia – It was in December 2017, as anti-LGBTQ sentiment was peaking in Indonesia, when Acep Saepudin’s father decided something needed to be done about his son.
He sought out a spiritual teacher in their town of Purwakarta in West Java Province and asked the ustad to give the young man an Islamic exorcism that would cure him of being gay.
Saepudin, now 23, went along willingly enough. It was a frightening time to be gay. Being straight would make his life a lot easier. He was also ashamed.
“I still believed that if I am Muslim, I can’t be gay,” he said. “Because I had studied at an Islamic school about six years and studied at an Islamic university. So it affected my thoughts.”
The ustad performed a ruqyah: an exorcism that in Indonesia is used to cure everything from poor health to bad relationships by ridding the afflicted person of demons known as jinn. The teacher prayed over Saepudin, who cried and then felt calm. Saepudin was instructed to sleep with Quran verses under his pillow.
“I did it for a month but nothing changed,” he said. “I am still gay. For me, the hardest part was not during the ruqyah, but after it, when I had to keep pushing myself to be straight. It was frustrating and made me depressed.”
In Indonesia, a widespread belief that ‘homosexuality is a disease’
LGBTQ people and rights advocates in the Southeast Asian nation – the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country – say there has been an increase in people seeking ruqyah as a form of conversion therapy since 2016.
Early that year, incendiary statements by high-ranking officials, coupled with a countrywide shift to the religious right, set off a cascade of hate and persecution directed at gay and transgender people. More than 300 people were arrested in 2017 alone, according to Human Rights Watch, many of them during raids on homes, nightclubs and hair salons.
This “moral panic,” as many have taken to calling the current climate, is one manifestation of a rise in Islamic fundamentalism that represents a new chapter for this vast archipelago country which has long touted its pluralism as its greatest strength.
“In general, nationwide in Indonesia, there is so much belief that homosexuality is a disease,” said Andreas Harsono, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Indonesia. “That it is not natural.”
“And with the spread of this belief that homosexuality is a disease, of course, there is a rise among traditional ‘medical’ practitioners who perform ruqyah. In every city, you open Facebook, you open local advertisements, you will see someone performing ruqyah services, of course, for money.”
Major television stations such as Trans TV have broadcast segments about performing ruqyah as a “cure” for homosexuality. In 2017, one such episode showed a young gay man screaming as an ustad attempted to drive out his jinn. The video has been viewed more than 57,000 times on the program’s official YouTube account.
Harsono stated that he is not opposed to people seeking out traditional treatments such as ruqyah for various ailments if it aligns with their beliefs, but said that when used for the purpose of conversion therapy, it can be harmful.
“I once met a gay man who was shackled because he himself, and his family, believed he was possessed by a gay spirit,” he said.
More than 20 regulations aimed at criminalizing homosexuality
In September and October, the streets of Jakarta erupted with protests. The demonstrations, which drew tens of thousands, were among the largest the country has seen since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. A new law that limits the power of Indonesia’s independent anti-corruption agency was a major driving force behind the unrest, along with anger over a proposed overhaul of the colonial-era criminal code that would, among other moralistic restrictions, ban sex outside marriage.
It isn’t illegal to be gay in Indonesia except in Aceh, a partially autonomous province ruled by Shariah law – at least not yet. Since there is no gay marriage, a ban on extramarital sex would effectively outlaw homosexuality while neatly sidestepping discriminatory language.
Successive versions of the proposed code have failed to pass Parliament in recent years and the pushback against this one has been fierce, so in the meantime, anti-LGBTQ crusaders have set their sights on smaller but more winnable battles.
More than 20 regulations aimed at criminalizing homosexuality are in the works at local levels all across Indonesia. And while it may be unlawful to arrest people for their sexuality or gender, that hasn’t stopped police, often acting on tips from militant Islamist groups, from doing so and using existing laws such as a decadeold ban on pornography as justification.
In November 2018, 10 women suspected of being lesbians were arrested in Padang, the provincial capital of West Sumatra. Two weeks later, city Mayor Mahyeldi Ansharullah led several thousand people in an anti-LGBTQ march through the city, declaring that he would increase the number of civil service police in order to achieve a “sin-free Padang.”
“To the perpetrators of sin, let them repent and those who protect them immediately be aware, because they will face opposition from all parties and communities in Padang as well as security forces,” Mahyeldi said at the time, according to national news agency Antara.
The detained women were referred to social services. The mayor then partnered with local religious organizations to provide ruqyah exorcisms for their “rehabilitation.”
Speaking at his office, the mayor said no one had been forced to undergo a ruqyah, but that the service was one of many resources offered to people he said needed help.
“We believe that the only thing that will set them free is their own determination to be cured,” Mahyeldi said. “That’s why we need to help them to strengthen their determination.”
He has also enlisted support from psychiatrists, the religion ministry and the military, he said, and introduced a new bylaw that bans parents from allowing anything that could encourage LGBTQ behavior in their children, such as allowing a boy to wear a dress or play with girls’ toys.
“We are looking for everything that we can do to minimize the LGBT influence, and this is one of the ways. Then we have to open a dialogue with them,” Mahyeldi said.
Not just exorcism: Counseling, rehab, acupuncture and hypnotherapy
Different ruqyah practitioners can have different techniques for driving out jinn, from placing their hands on the “afflicted” person’s head to administering herbal drinks or praying over salt and then sprinkling it on the person’s food.
At the Abu Albani Clinic in east Jakarta, patients can choose from a variety of therapeutic treatments including acupuncture, hypnotherapy, and exorcism. A ruqyah costs Rp 125,000, or just under $9.
“In this clinic, we don’t just exorcise people,” said Ustad Abu Albani, who runs the center. “There’s counseling and rehab as well.”
Albani said LGBTQ people have been influenced by Western countries into thinking their sexuality or gender is acceptable. He views them as afflicted by a dangerous illness that is capable of spreading to straight people.
“If there is someone who has a sexual disorder and feels no guilt about it, it’s important to keep an eye on them,” he said. “For example, it’s like a murderer who thinks what he does isn’t wrong. If we questioned him, ‘why?’ and he says, ‘because I like to kill people,’ are we going to agree? Of course, not. So I tell them that [ruqyah] is the solution.”
‘Not a choice. It is given’
Some 250 miles east of Jakarta is Yogyakarta, a city of fewer than 500,000 people in central Java that is known as the spiritual home of Javanese culture. A little way outside the center of town, down a series of narrowing alleyways, is a bright, traditional Javanese housing with a courtyard.
These days, it houses an Islamic boarding school, or pesantren, named Pesantren Al-Fatah.
Al-Fatah is like no other pesantren in Indonesia. It is run by Shinta Ratri, commonly known as “Ibu Shinta.” She is a transgender woman, as are all of her students. In Indonesia, “trans” women are known as waria, a portmanteau of the Indonesian words for “man” and “woman.”
“It’s not easy being a ‘trans’ woman as a Muslim,” Shinta said recently, seated in her courtyard, wearing a pink headscarf.
She believes a ruqyah can be a beautiful and curative experience to comfort your soul when you’re sad or depressed, but that using it to try to “fix” someone’s gender identity is misguided. A number of her students have experienced this version of a ruqyah, either voluntarily or because their parents pressured them to do so.
“It happens because their parents didn’t understand what a ‘trans’ woman is,” Shinta said. “Because they just believe this is a disease, that being LGBT is a disease. So we always educate people that ‘trans’ women are given from God. In the Javanese culture, we have ‘trans’ women, too, so this makes it easier to explain that being a ‘trans’ women is not a choice. It is given.”
Homosexuality classified as a mental disorder
In a country where the Indonesian Psychiatrists Association classifies homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism as mental disorders by definition, and something that can be cured through proper treatment, convincing society at large that someone’s sexuality or gender isn’t a choice but an uphill battle to fix, especially when many LGBTQ people themselves don’t believe it.
Nearly two years after his ineffectual ruqyah, much has changed for Saepudin. He’s a recent college graduate living in Jakarta, where he has found a supportive community. He is also HIV positive and, via a massively popular YouTube account where he goes by the name Acep Gates, a highly visible advocate for HIV testing.
Three of his gay friends have attempted to convert themselves with a ruqyah in the past year, he said, and he sometimes receives messages on Instagram from followers who are considering undergoing one. These days, however, he is unlikely to advise them to give it a try.
“Now I don’t want to be straight anymore,” he said, laughing. “No, I just want to enjoy my gay life.”
This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media Program of the International Women’s Media Foundation. www.iwmf.org.
Contributing: Aulia Adam, Round Earth Media