Kelli Swazey | CRCS | Perspective
This essay is in memoriam for Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche. Taliesin was a 2016 graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. On May 26th, 2017, he and two other men were attacked on a commuter train in Portland while defending two young women from another passenger who was harassing them. Taliesin died from the wounds he sustained in the attack. His family has asked that this tragedy be used as an opportunity for reflection and change. To read the Indonesian translation of this essay, click here: Mengenang Taliesin: Melawan Kebencian di Amerika dan Indonesia.
Like many expatriate Americans, I have been watching from afar with growing concern at the signs of an increasingly divided and intolerant social environment in my country of origin. Between regular incidents of violence towards those labeled minorities on the basis of their ethnic, racial, or religious identities, as well as an increase in public displays of hate emboldened by jingoistic political leadership, it appears that the America I know is undergoing a great test to the ideal of “Out of many, One.”
As my life and livelihood are settled half a world away in Indonesia, I recognize that these questions of how different people should best live together are not just of concern for Americans. These are issues that involve all of us in a globalized world where identity and perceptions of difference have increasingly become points around which violence flares. The question of who we are in relation to others is an essential concern of many human societies in today’s world, one that can have severe consequences for communities and individuals who become targets of violence and persecution.
This was painfully brought home to me when scanning the news a few weeks ago. On Friday, May 26th, three men confronted a passenger on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon. Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, was reportedly disturbing passengers, yelling threatening, anti-Muslim and racist pejoratives at two young African American girls sitting on the train, one who was wearing a hijab. In an attempt to intervene, Ricky John Best (53) and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche (23) were drawn into physical conflict with Christian. Another young man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, came to their aid. Christian stabbed all three men, and in the ensuing panic the two girls who had been the target of his tirade fled from the train. Best and Namkai-Meche both died from their wounds. Fletcher underwent surgery to repair his injuries and survived the attack. The two young women the men defended on the train made it safely home to their families, not aware until later in the day that two of their protectors had lost their lives.
Living with Diversity: Taliesin’s experience in Indonesia
This wasn’t only another horrific story of violence fueled by hate happening at home to wince at in the morning news. The photo that accompanied most of the stories was familiar to me, the face of a young man beaming in his college graduation gown. Although I hoped that I was wrong, it was a face that I knew. Taliesin was my student on an experiential education program in Indonesia I worked for in 2011. Bombastic and witty, he had a great, warm smile, and was prone to wrapping his lanky frame around you in a bear hug. That year, he joined a dynamic group of high-school graduates from the United States who spent a semester in Indonesia traveling across the archipelago to experience the country’s culture and diversity. I joined the group and their three American instructors as a cultural consultant in Kolonodale, a mining town on the edge of Morowali National Park in Central Sulawesi. Throughout the course of their three-month journey, the students lived with families of different ethnic identities and religions from across the country: Hindu families in Bali; Christian families on the border of the national park in Seram, Maluku; and Muslim seafaring families in Wakitobi, Southeast Sulawesi, among others.
The program focused on the exploration of diversity – not just the startling cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of Indonesia, but also on what thinking about diversity meant for a group of white, privileged young people from the United States. For everyone involved, the trip was a challenging, face to face encounter with difference: different lifestyles, beliefs, and even moral orientations that seemed on the surface to be incommensurate with our own way of life. In living with several families across the archipelago, participating in their daily lives and learning about their struggles, we hoped that the students would not just learn about Indonesia, but take a critical look at themselves as global citizens.
As a group, we witnessed many of the communities we stayed with face discrimination. The students were thrust into learning firsthand about the consequences of sectarian violence in a political context that was utterly foreign to them. They listened to a local instructor recount the days he spent caught in an outbreak of fighting during the protracted interreligious violence in the city of Ambon. They wandered around Lake Poso among the gutted homes and businesses that were left behind after residents fled from violence there. They listened as a local religious leader denigrated the intelligence of his co-religionists because they did not practice Islam in a way that he agreed with. They struggled with the reality that there aren’t any easy answers to addressing conflict that is based on the premise of us versus them, no matter where you are in the world. In Indonesia, the differences that the students’ host families ascribed to the world were baffling because they unfolded in a context unfamiliar to them. In this way, the students came to see that difference is often a matter of perspective and position, allowing them to rethink their own prejudices and preconceptions.
More significantly, they began to examine themselves and the American culture that shaped them, the assumptions about how people should live that had seemed so natural and obvious to them at the start of their trip. That obviousness faded as the students turned our discussions about power, privilege, racism and the cruelty of history with our Indonesian hosts towards their own lives and contexts. They were learning what it meant to be American in today’s world, with all the potential and heartbreak that entails. For many of the students, their experiences had an impact that far outlasted their few months traveling the archipelago. It influenced how they saw themselves as young people living in a multicultural nation that shares many similarities with Indonesia.
At a gathering to attend Taliesin’s memorial in Portland, Oregon, many of the students shared that their encounter with lived diversity in Indonesia continues to frame what they are experiencing as young adults in a United States in turmoil. What they are witnessing today is connected to issues they learned about in Indonesia: the historical and political legacy of the perception of difference between “The West” and the rest; how religious, racial, and ethnic discrimination is often exacerbated by the way that state institutions manage diversity; and how unequal access to resources and a lack of social equality can play a supporting role in the conditions that facilitate violence.
Discourses of hate in the United States and Indonesia
For me, the most chilling implications of Taliesin’s death is how it underscores similarities in the current state of public life in both my home country and my adopted one. Comparing recent expressions of xenophobia in the US and Indonesia, it is disturbing how the rhetoric of hate in both places depends on similar, banal expressions of violence, defensiveness and fear of the other that echo troubling political and policy shifts. In the US, the Trump administration and the president himself revert to stereotypes and rely on an increasingly narrow definition of who is rightfully American that is steeped in centuries of white male privilege and power as a basis for rule. In Indonesia, racial, ethnic, and religious identities are being utilized as symbolic fodder for political rivalries that have grave consequences for individuals who belong to minority groups.
In an open letter to President Trump, Taliesin’s mother, Asha Deliverance, identified hate speech and “hate groups” as the driving force behind the violent act that cut her son’s life tragically short. In her plea, she asked him not only to condemn violent acts, but also to use his leadership engender citizens to protect one another. “Please encourage all Americans to protect and watch out for one another. Please condemn any acts of violence, which result directly from hate speech & hate groups. I am praying you will use your leadership to do so.”
Indonesia has also been struggling with how to address hate speech and its effects, with many analysts seeing a link between the circulation of hate speech on social media that singles groups out on the basis of their religion, gender, race, or ethnicity to outbreaks of violence. At times, the groups responsible characterize these calls to action as a citizen’s recourse to the failure of law enforcement to ‘protect’ religion or religious practitioners from offense, in an effort to bolster claims that acting in violence is part of their citizen’s rights. This too resembles the discourse of violent groups in the US, including the one that Taliesin’s murderer was associated with, who claim that their acts of violence are patriotic.
In the probable cause affidavit for Christian’s trial, arresting officers reported that he stated he hoped his victims died from their wounds because that’s “what liberalism gets you.” This is eerily one of the same narratives we have heard from repressive organizations in Indonesia that perpetrate violence against other citizens, who claim that “liberalisme” is a kind of disease that has infected Indonesian communities and threatens the collective morality of the nation. The particular targets of this kind of discourse may vary, and are employed in different contexts, but the intent is the same: to inspire fear and condone violence against “others” with different lifestyles, insisting that they erode some integral version of a pure national identity, one that is threatened even as it threatens. This type of discourse serves a dual purpose. Not only does it seek to make violence against other citizens find acceptance as an act of self-defense, it also frames the perpetrators as victims whose rights have been violated.
In Indonesia, the laws aimed at controlling discriminatory or defamatory speech in public forums both online and off have been at best lopsided in their application, and at worst, utilized by individuals and entities as a legal maneuver to discriminate, target minorities, and silence individuals who attempt to bring powerful parties to justice. Instead of being used to address speech and actions aimed at inciting violence, the laws are being used as a tool for persecution. Rappler Indonesia recently reported that to date, 59 individuals have been persecuted or intimidated by parties using the Electronic Information and Transaction Law (UU ITE) to accuse them of defaming religion, an accusation that can be used to intimidate or encourage vigilante action against them.
The propensity of the law to be misused as a tool for persecution rather than protection was demonstrated on a national scale with the recent controversy over the statements of the now jailed Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok). A blasphemy charge was brought against him after a recording of a statement he made interpreting the meaning of a verse in the Quran went viral. A number of massive public protests calling for the government to indict Ahok on the charges led to a dramatic, televised trial that in the opinion of many lacked due diligence as it unfolded. Ahok was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy. In comparison, members of the twelve-person mob who were filmed beating to death three members of the minority Ahmadiyah community in Cikuesik in 2011 were sentenced to only a few months of jail time. One begins to wonder what exactly these laws are meant to protect.
That the law, and the general public, becomes fixated on cases with political overtones while numerous groups make public statements promoting violence against non-Muslims, Chinese Indonesians, members of the LGBT community, or Muslims of minority sects, demonstrates the inconsistent application of the ideals of equality and justice found in the nation’s founding principles called Pancasila. In a short drive around Yogyakarta where I live, a city hailed for its tolerance and integrated multicultural population, it’s easy to find banners decrying various groups targeted for their difference: Syiah Muslims, Jews, Eastern Indonesians, LGBT community members. This kind of sectarian rallying is tolerated too despite laws banning it. People are afraid to challenge these public displays because they fear that they will become targets. These fears are not unfounded in an environment where those who enact violence do so with impunity, or at least while enjoying the protection of the law that wasn’t successful in protecting their victims. In the US, a similar ethos is seen where Taliesin’s family has received death threats for speaking out about Taliesin’s death, and white supremacist groups attempted to hold a pro-Trump rally in Portland in the days following the incident on the train, as well as protesting outside his memorial.
These examples represent the most disturbing effect of discourses of discrimination and hate, especially when those statements are uttered by politicians. They ripple outward into the general public, and can foster an environment where discriminatory action and violence is tolerated, if not condoned. Last year, a public statement about the moral threat that LGBT students pose on Indonesian university campuses by Muhammad Nasir, the Indonesian Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education unleashed a slew of anti-LGBT actions from politicians, religious leaders, and government institutions. The newly elected Governor of Jakarta, at the time serving as the Minister of Education and Culture, also joined in the chorus of powerful individuals labeling members of the LGBT community as a threat to the moral education of youth. In the past few months, we have witnessed disturbing incidents of law enforcement raids on private citizens suspected to be engaging in homosexual relations (not yet illegal in Indonesia), and the public punishment of couples accused of homosexuality in the Special Province of Aceh. Both law enforcement and special interest groups have made public statements that imply that non-heteronormative relationships are contrary to public morality, threaten the nation, and can in some instances be considered illegal behavior (in the case of the raids relying on laws about the circulation of inappropriate material online such as the Anti-Pornography Law and the UU ITE). That a few statements by politically influential people could so swiftly make the LGBT community a target for intimidation and persecution, and perhaps eventual criminalization, is a terrifying example of just how powerful this kind of divisive identity discourse has become.
The dialectic relations between discriminatory statements by politicians, policies that target particular groups ostensibly on the basis of safety and security, and increased violence against those identified as “other,” “immoral”, or “anti-nationalist” is difficult to deny. In the US, Trump’s Muslim ban and his cabinet’s statements on religious and other minorities have been repeatedly linked to public incidents of hate speech, harassment and violence against these groups of citizens. In both my home country and my adopted one, politicians espouse the values of tolerance but don’t enact it in their actions or policies. This kind of hypocrisy is a dangerous conceit that engenders injustice and fosters violence. As civil rights lawyer Arjun Singh Sheti writes about the political response to the incident in Portland, politicians must do more than publicly condemn incidents of violence. They must work to address policies based in stereotypes that perpetuate hate against minority groups. Speaking from his perspective as a member of a minority religious community in the United States, he sees a clear link between inherently prejudicial policies and what is happening in the American public. “If the government sees our communities as inherently suspect and unworthy of dignity and respect,” he writes, “so will everyday Americans.”
An Ethics of Courageous Pluralism
I’ve spent a week trying to finish this essay, agonizing over what to hold back in in order to soften my emotions in writing. I’ve sought to make some argument that makes sense of the senseless with the detached eye of an academic. I’ve come to realize that I cannot write past the sadness I feel about Taliesin’s death. I can’t defuse my anger at the systems that facilitate and fan this kind of violence, or the similarities I see in the public life of the two nations I call home. Taliesin’s death has brought me back to questions about how we live an ethical life in the modern world, because I see what he did as an ethical action.
According to a witness who was with him on the train, Taliesin knew he was gravely injured. The last thing he asked her, as emergency responders rushed to try and save him, was to “tell everyone on this train I love them.” I am astounded by his bravery and capacity to stand against hatred in its most vile expression, even at the moment when he knew his selflessness had exacted a terrible price. Taliesin endeavored to act out of a personal ethic of love. Law, institutions, politics and leadership are part of what determines our public actions, but emotion is also central to ethical life. It is where emotions intersect with broader ideas about what kind of people we should be that ethics begin to take a recognizable shape. In his recent book on ethical life, anthropologist Webb Keane investigates the role that discourse plays in creating the boundaries of our ethical worlds, how our individual inner lives connect and are conversant with our social and cultural environments. Keane explains that “making ethical ideas explicit brings about changes in public context within which cognitions and emotions are expressed. They alter the landscape in ways that channel the flow of ideas. In any given context, some concepts and arguments make more sense to people, and others, less so. The crucial point here is that these ideas enter into social interactions” (Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories 2016:251. Italics mine).
Taliesin exemplified this kind of ethical orientation in his short time among us. He recognized that being an engaged and ethical human is work that we can consciously commit ourselves to, a process that requires self reflexivity and a willingness to put aside our own egos. Traveling with our group in Indonesia, he would admonish his peers for talking too much about their lives back in America, pushing them to fully open themselves to their experiences. Reflecting on Taliesin’s final words, his lecturer at Reed College, Kambiz Ghanea Bassiri, wrote of his admiration for Taliesin’s effort to push beyond his own preconceptions and his motivation “to learn about Islam because his ethics of love required him to be informed about other cultures and religions in everyday life so that — rather than acting out of ignorance — he could act justly out of an informed love for others.”
Taliesin’s death should remind us that we are all at stake here. It’s an old admonishment: if we stand silent as others are persecuted, we are complicit not only in their suffering, but also in our own. Hate is indiscriminate, and its eye can easily be turned on anyone. As NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in response to the incident, “What the three men in Oregon understood, but the White House doesn’t, is that in a healthy society, Islamophobia doesn’t disparage just Muslims, racism doesn’t demean blacks alone, misogyny hurts more than women, xenophobia insults more than immigrants. Rather, we are all diminished, so we all have a stake in confronting bigotry.” Here in Indonesia, who gets slotted into the role of the persecuted in this sentence may be different, but the repercussions for the ideal of a just society are the same in both cases.
In many circumstances, we cannot depend on rule of law, politicians, or state institutions to bear sole responsibility for creating the society we hope for. None of us can afford the arrogance of thinking we know the one right way to live or that we can exist in today’s world without considering other perspectives. If an ethical world is one created in interaction with others, then tolerance is not enough. We must seek to engage with those whose differences challenge us. If we recognize ethics as intersubjective “the way in which we exchange intentions and perspectives with one another,” (Keane, Ethical Life, 21) then modern ethical life necessitates we create space to interact with others who inhabit our social worlds, not simply put up with their presence in our midst. Here at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, we try and hold a space to foster that kind of interaction among people of different backgrounds and beliefs, and we advocate for the state to ensure the protection of the spaces in which interaction can grow. However, it is in civil society, in the everyday interaction between citizens, that this principle must be encouraged, embraced, and upheld if it is to become part of our shared values as a national community.
We may not all be as courageous as Taliesin, or the many others who stand up to hate at great personal cost. But I am certain that in both the US and in Indonesia, we must move beyond a weak concept of tolerance towards a more courageous lived pluralism, one that sees the burden of us living together in the best possible world for all of us as one we equally share, one that takes effort and sacrifice on all our parts, not just as the responsibility of those who are labeled as minorities. This is our ethical imperative, our call to leadership on an everyday scale. To honor those who stand up to hatred we must take on our share of responsibility and refuse to tolerate the discourses that are used to demonize others, to diminish other human beings by insisting we can’t make the effort to recognize their personhood on the grounds that it takes away from who we think we are.
In the weeks before his death, Taliesin had been discussing a quote from the Sufi philosopher Rumi with his friends and family. “Be thirsty for the ultimate water, and then be prepared for what will come pouring from the spring.” This is the message his family chose to print on the cards given to mourners at his funeral. I am choosing to interpret this quote as an edict for action, a blueprint for the kind of thinking that led Taliesin to embody the front line against the insidious form of hatred that is gaining ground in many locations worldwide. We may not know what will come of taking the risk to act in the service of our higher selves, to speak up against intimidation and hate for the good of all of us; but wading into those waters may be our best hope for an ethics of interaction that is buoyed by the force of love.
*The writer, Dr. Kelli Swazey, is a faculty member at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta.
This post is also available in: Indonesian