Three leaders talk about the importance of building a culture of communication to counter intolerance, conservatism and radicalism. Olivia Yang reports.

“Justice will never be an accomplished state. As long as there are individuals and people on this earth, there would always be conflicts. Justice and a world equal for all will always be an elusive state. But humanity progresses. It is almost like a dance as old as time. Two steps ahead, one step back. Sometimes one step ahead and two steps back.”

Thus spoke Alissa Wahid at the 2018 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award (ADHRA) ceremony in Taipei on Dec. 10, 2018.

Wahid is the founder and national coordinator for the Gusdurian Network Indonesia (GNI), laureate of the 13th ADHRA. The non-governmental organization is currently one of Indonesia’s leading groups combating radicalism and defending those who are discriminated against due to religious and minority suppression.

Established in 2010, the GNI is named after late Indonesian President K.H. Abdurahman Wahid, who was also known colloquially in Indonesia as “Gus Dur.” President Wahid was the first democratically elected president in Indonesia and had strived to promote interfaith dialogue and multiculturalism. His work became an inspiration for many Indonesians, also called “Gusdurians,” even after his death in 2009. The GNI was founded after his passing to encourage and consolidate interaction among Gusdurians, and further promote Gus Dur’s advocacy for minority rights, religious freedom and tolerance.

The main challenges in Indonesia today are religious populism, “hate spins,” radicalism and violent extremism, said Ms. Wahid. This is where the GNI comes in, as the arena for people from all backgrounds to work together as a democracy, especially at a time when the space for human rights activists is becoming gradually restrictive.

“‘God needs no defense,’ Gus Dur used to say. But now we see how God and religion are capitalized to gain political power, to discriminate [against] others, to do injustices. And when done in the name of God, how powerful. So this is [what] we currently focus on,” Wahid said in her acceptance speech.

Reverend Lazarus Chen (陳思豪) of the Koteng Presbyterian Church in Taiwan echoed similar concerns during a conversation with Wahid.

Chen is one of the religious leaders who have publicly supported marriage equality, especially during the lead-up to Taiwan’s referendum on the issue late last year.

Taiwan’s Constitutional Court on May 24, 2017, ruled that Taiwan’s Civil Code violates the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of marriage and people’s equality. It gave the Taiwanese government two years to amend the law or pass new legislation to legalize same-sex unions.

In the local elections last November, a total of five referendum motions regarding LGBTQI rights were put on the ballot. Three of the motions aimed to refuse same-sex marriage under the Civil Code and ban LGBTQI education in schools. All three motions were approved in the referenda, while the other two pro-LGBTQI rights motions were not.

In the conversation with Wahid, Chen lamented the fear-mongering in Taiwan’s recent anti-same-sex-marriage campaign. According to him, most Christians in Taiwan believe that the Bible claims that homosexuality is a sin and therefore they do not support same-sex marriage. The results of the referenda, the reverend said, were “manipulated by Christians in Taiwan.”

“They use any kind of resource, including spreading disinformation, to influence and frighten the people in Taiwan to refuse same-sex marriage,” he said.

But he also pointed out that Christians only account for 6 percent of the island-nation’s population and called for non-Christian Taiwanese to “not be led by the few vicious Christians.” The reverend then stressed the importance of building a culture of debate and communication in Taiwan.

Wahid emphasized the value of dialogue, adding that although initiating theological conversations on LGBTQI issues in Indonesia is still very challenging — dangerous, even — “it has to start somewhere.”

“I think GNI is the only group that would put a transgender speaker in front of people on a stage, said Wahid. “But it takes a lot of work.”

The GNI national coordinator also emphasized the importance of staying close to those who hold different opinions and not treating them “as enemies because we need to influence them to have different perspectives.”

While working to enhance communication between groups that hold different values, Taiwan also strives to build tolerance toward Southeast Asian migrant workers, who currently account for nearly 700,000 of the country’s population.

Chang Cheng (張正), also a speaker at the conversation with Wahid, works to resolve the discrimination between Southeast Asians and Taiwanese through his Southeast Asia-themed bookstore, Brilliant Time Bookstore.

The bookstore runs a program called, “Bring Back A Book that You Cannot Read.” It encourages Taiwanese who travel to Southeast Asian countries to return with a book which is then given to migrant workers or spouses in Taiwan. This gives Taiwanese an opportunity to show kindness towards the migrant workers, said Chang. In addition to the program, the bookstore hosts around 30 talks each year on Southeast Asia topics to help the Taiwanese people learn more about the region and its cultures.

Chang also launched the Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants in 2014 with a goal to give and facilitate the Taiwan society in learning more about them. The first prize for the literature award is NT$100,000 (US$3,200), and last year, the award also received submissions from migrant workers in Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and Singapore. Chang said they are expecting to expand to South Korea and Japan this year.

“If we learn more about them, discrimination will be less,” said Chang. “In the dark, it is everyone’s duty to hold the torch.”

Reverend Lazarus Chen, Chang Cheng, Alissa Wahid, and moderator Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Vice President Ketty W. Chen (left to right). Photo Credit: Taiwan Foundation for Democracy

 

Feature photo: 2018 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award Recipient Gusdurian Network Indonesia National Coordinator Alissa Wahid. Photo Credit: 黃謙賢/Taiwan Foundation for Democracy