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Image courtesy of Ferdiansyah Thajib
The Brink

Inhabiting queer religiosity

Drawing from ethnographic research of Indonesian Muslim queer experiences, this essay addresses Lauren Berlant’s conceptual legacy in understanding tensile relationships between queerness and religious affects.

Lauren Berlant’s compelling proposals in Cruel Optimism have been key in elaborating the affective landscape of proliferating precarity under a neoliberal world order. But I want to make use of this occasion to specifically discuss how their conceptual legacy has helped me in further understanding the ways interstitial spaces are formed between queerness and religious affects.

In this short essay, I second Donovan Schaefer’s analysis in Religious Affects,which describes how cruel optimism serves a crucial concept for understanding religion. As a manifestation of compulsory affect, such an optimism is employed to make sense of “the moments when religion resolutely exceeds what passes for rational self-interest” (105).

Here I would like to highlight how some queer bodies remain invested in Islamic values and practices despite their constant struggle with the heteronormative aspects that are deeply attached to its traditional aspects. The affects of “not quite” following the normative scripts are complex and heterogeneous – and this is what I have explored in my ethnographic work (e.g. Thajib, “Kaleidoscopic Feelings”).

In the course of my fieldwork in three locations in Indonesia—namely, in Aceh, Jakarta, and Yogyakarta—I have encountered different actors who are subjected to normative orders that continue to pit their faith practices against their desires and ways of living. This has led to many of them being confronted with having to choose between the two seemingly irreconcilable ways of being. Most, however, ended up treading water in this tensile relationship for an indefinite amount of time.

In Indonesian parlance, the term konflik batin, or inner turmoil, has been used as a catchphrase to refer to this tensile relationship. On one hand, this binary-charged term tends to reduce the inner states of Muslim sexual and gender minorities into ones that are univocally conflicted. It is also often expressed as a stereotype which attributes negative feelings such as alienation, self-loathing, self-manipulation or hypocrisy to Muslim queer subjectivities.

But in my interactions with the research interlocutors, these assumptions are being destabilized. Indeed, stories of having to go through a lifetime dealing with contradictory feelings and intense emotions are shared among my interlocutors. These moments were shaped through recurrent encounters with the insidious nature of Islamic tradition, especially mainstream interpretation, which strictly prohibits same-sex intimacy and denigrates gender non-conformity to the extent that my interlocutors often reach what Berlant describes as an impasse.

The impasses of inhabiting queer religiosity are articulated among my interlocutors through a range of affective vocabularies, and can take form as a spectrum of embodied practices. The narratives that I provide below signal these affective complexes. A pseudonym is assigned to each named interlocutor to ensure anonymity and confidentiality.

Bodily feelings appeared central in the story conveyed by Anna, an interlocutor in Yogyakarta who identifies as queer. Anna grew up in a religious family in West Sumatra. When we met, she explained that she no longer wore hijab after coming to a realization of the impossibility of continuing to perform devotional practices.

Anna partly attributed her resolve to her growing frustration upon witnessing how assaults towards people of non-heteronormative genders and sexualities intensified across the nation, mainly through religious reasonings. But she also gave up Islam for more personal reasons: “I felt that it is impossible to be queer and be a pious Muslim at the same time. Back when I was still actively praying, I kept having this weird feeling here (pointing to her abdominal area). I would never be able to be truly clean in front of God when I pray.”

Anna specifically recalled a time she was praying to be reunited with her girlfriend after they broke up. But when they were reunited, she felt a pang of discomfort at the thought that a God of a religion used to persecute sexual minorities would grant her prayer: “I really wondered why God had listened to my prayer. It didn’t feel right at all.”

While Anna moved away from Islam, she did not become an atheist. Rather, she maintains a spiritual connection with what she describes as a Divine Energy.

Anna has been cultivating this connection by going to different religious spaces, such as Javanese Christian churches and Hindu temples, and engaging with various material elements symbolizing the six official religions and other belief systems in Indonesia. Religiosity for her is more about attending to her own embodied relationships with the so-called greater forces than about subscribing to the prescriptions of institutionalized religions.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tino, an interlocutor from Aceh, told me a set of burdensome feelings tied to the failure of becoming a better Muslim. His account was prompted by concerns of seeing many of his friends in the gay community who have beenentering heterosexual marriages, or what he calls hijrah.

Hijrah in Islamic terminology means emigrating. It originates from the historical event when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers migrated (622 AD) from Mecca to Medina in order to escape persecution. In contemporary usage, this word connotes the act of moving away from evil deeds and religiously forbidden activities towards moral good.

It is this latter vernacular understanding of hijrah that framed Tino’s remark. He tried doing so by praying hard so that God one day would allow him “to be once again straight, but up to now, I haven’t seen any results.” While seemingly bleak, his expression is sutured by an ambivalent optimism: that through time (and God’s intervention) he would eventually find a solution to his hardship.

In the meantime, as if he had forgotten about the difficulties that concerned him a few moments before, he went on saying: ‘I don’t know. What is clear to me for now is that I would like to have a dynamic relationship with a guy, someone whom I can connect to intellectually, who can also get along with my friends, and also devout. I haven’t found anyone yet. But a friend told me that this might be a sign from God that I am not supposed to be with other men.”

Tino’s longing for an ideal boyfriend seemed to be more pressing, thus interrupting his long-term vision of a good life which is tethered to heteronormative ideals of marriage. In what may appear to be a self-defeating behavior on Tino’s part, I see a double movement: his desire for an ideal boyfriend and in parallel, his acknowledgment of the constraining conditions, as an infallible aspect of cruel optimism in queer religiosity.

On the one hand, religious values and teachings that in one moment are felt as shackling and oppressive, at other times are invoked as sources of moral peace. On the other hand, the quest for same-sex intimacy, which is often valued as fulfilling and liberating, sometimes appears as a psychic burden. Within these moments of ambivalence, Tino’s feelings of failure do not only become his source of anxiety, but at other times also enable him to adjust his mental resources and sensual capacities in order to live on.

So far, I have explored how some Muslim queers inhabit inner conflict in the contexts of distant and proximity with how divine power is Islamic traditions. Frictions about ritual practices and concepts of sinning are also part of the affective complexity. I will turn now to the story of Maya, a transpuan who lives in Aceh. Transpuan is a shorthand for transgender perempuan, or “transgender woman” in English.

One evening, Maya and her friends were having a heated discussion. At the core of the debate is the question of the proper ways to perform salat, or daily prayers. In one camp, there is Maya, who stressed the need to perform salat as a true expression to oneself, suggesting that one should pray in whichever attributes are personally comfortable, including using the female attire of mukena.

In the opposing side, there are some of her friends who believe that salat is a spiritual act where one must stay modest in the face of God. This condition requisites one to let go of one’s feminine expressions while conducting salat, and dress up in a manner which corresponds to one’s at birth-assigned sex. From this latter perspective, to do otherwise is considered a sin.

The debate then shifted to how the concept of sin has been widely used as means to further subordinate sexual and gender minorities. Maya responded to this saying that she is unable to imagine the kind of punishment that she will receive from God due to the various sins that she has committed in her life.

But it is the same God-fearing affect that motivates Maya to give sedekah (alms) to orphans on a regular basis and provide for others around her. She explained: “While I don’t see this as necessarily redeeming all of my sins, at least I can start to save pahala (divine rewards) as it helps to alleviate my sins (meringankan dosa) in the afterlife.”

While insisting on the scene of promise which is tethered to the idea of a good afterlife, Maya has inadvertently been reinventing her past and present marginalized condition into what Eve Sedgwick in Touching Feeling might call reparative gestures toward the social.

An impasse, as described by Berlant, is a scene where “some activity toward reproducing life is not identical to making it or oneself better, or to a response to the structural conditions of a collective failure to thrive, but to making a less bad experience.” (Cruel Optimism, 117).

Crucially, the Berlantian impasse does not only point to a spatiotemporal condition of blockage or being stuck, but also of possibility. While it does slow people down or even inhibit them in achieving well-being, a certain hopefulness also emerges of this debilitating situation.

Different interlocutors in my research have expounded moments of reaching impasses while inhabiting their respective inner conflicts. These are all a part of the affective tension that comes with the promise of a good life in queer religiosity. Some were mired in perennial difficulties, some tried to navigate them by either moving towards or away from religious practices and value, while there are also those who ended up failing altogether.

But ultimately, all of them still continue to find ways to keep on going. And in doing so, they remain faithful to the process of queer-worldmaking in its open-ended becoming.

Inhabiting queer religiosity

Drawing from ethnographic research of Indonesian Muslim queer experiences, this essay addresses Lauren Berlant’s conceptual legacy in understanding tensile relationships between queerness and religious affects.

Feminist (Theological) Fantasies

Berlant’s work points us to other possibilities that avoid, that resist, the fantasy of redeemed gender—calling for us instead to reside in the messiness of our attachments and providing space and ways for us to negotiate them, rather than seeking to transcend them. Whereas the efforts to transcend gender seem to, paradoxically, deepen our attachments to gender norms, it is also the case then that in negotiating the messiness of those attachments, one finds space for other ways of doing gender that perhaps subvert or move us beyond its constraining norms.

Binding Berlant

The burgeoning subfield of queer and trans studies in religion is opening up avenues for understanding our bodily attachments within and beyond religion. With Berlant’s sensibility as a guide, scholars of queer and trans studies in religion might seek to explore the paradoxes of desire and love that Berlant theorized with a generosity, curiosity, and clarity we can all hope to emulate.

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