The Jakarta Post
Ridwan Kamil may be a media — and politically savvy politician, someone who could navigate his way through the country’s corridors of power and win top executive positions many times over.
But on Tuesday, the West Java governor and noted architect made a blunder that could haunt him in the future. And judging from the loud boos from the audience when he explained that the architectural style he used for the Al-Safar Mosque in West Java did not represent the symbol of the Illuminati, the once-popular Bandung mayor could truly regret his decision to have a discussion with his critics in the first place.
At the urging of the West Java branch of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Ridwan joined a public discussion on Monday to respond to an allegation from popular YouTube preacher Rahmat Baequni that the triangular motifs in Al-Safar’s design contained the symbols of the Illuminati and the Antichrist, which would make praying inside the mosque null and void.
“These symbols within the mosque’s design will only enable the Antichrist to realize his apocalyptic ambitions through Zionism,” Rahmat said during the discussion.
This should have been the end of it. Ridwan should have packed his bag and left because engaging in a discussion with people who hold such fringe views is pointless. But Ridwan stayed until the very end, and when the meeting wrapped up, he had his photo taken with Rahmat, probably to assure the latter’s followers that a truce had been reached.
With this, Ridwan not only elevated Rahmat to a position of power but he also normalized him and his abhorrent views.
If you believe that the world is run by a cabal of Jewish financiers, who control the world through the media, it is a slippery slope from there. Next, you will believe that the 9/11 terror attacks were an inside job by the United States’ government, that the government pours chemicals into the water to turn people (and frogs) gay or that Gerindra Party presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto is the much-awaited messiah, as prognosticated by the Javanese version of Nostradamus, King Jayabaya.
Some of the claims made by these conspiracy theorists may be outrageous, but they are similar to the hoaxes and misinformation that were widely circulated during the lead-up to the April 17 presidential election, such as insinuations that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is secretly Chinese and that he was a member of the dissolved Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Another popular conspiracy theory was that thousands of Chinese workers are already in the country, taking jobs from locals.
And if the government takes the problem of hoaxes and fake news seriously and started a crackdown on those who spread such misinformation, law enforcers and officials should also pursue efforts to punish individuals responsible for peddling conspiracy theories, or at least not normalize them and put them on the pulpit.
Freedom of speech comes with consequences. And in some cases, when some of these outrageous views have created harm, there is no other way but to punish them immediately.
In some instances, where discussion is impossible, people have decided to simply punch conspiracy theorists (and fascists) in the face.
In January 2017, a protester punched white supremacist Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed on American television, to the delight of millions who had long loathed him. How could they not; Spencer was not only racist but he was also an avid conspiracy theorist who believed, among other things, that the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral was deliberately lit to push “white men into action”, and that it would serve a “glorious purpose.”
Millions also jeered when a 17-year-old boy egged the head of Australian senator Fraser Anning, following the far-right politician’s statement soon after the Christchurch shooting in March, that Muslims were usually perpetrators of terrorist acts. And again, bigots are the ones who usually believe in conspiracy theories. Upon closer inspection, Anning was an ardent believer of the debunked myth propagated by white supremacists that white South African farmers were being attacked and were at risk of genocide.
This brings us to the latest casualty of popular anger toward a far-right politician, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, not only known for his nativist and anti-Europe views but also for his antisemitic thoughts.
Farage has been the target of a string of attacks known as “milkshaking”, where protesters pelt him with the dairy product. In late May, Farage was so terrified at the prospect of having to deal with milkshake attacks that he refused to get off his Brexit Party campaign bus after people gathered around it carrying milkshakes.
Pacifists would certainly oppose such tactics when dealing with fascists and conspiracy theory aficionados, and we, as a civilized society, should also refrain from injecting violence into political discourse.
But we should also not stoop so low by engaging with these types of firebrands and rabble-rousers. If the information they spread meets the criteria of hoaxes and fake news and could harm people, law enforcers should just bring charges against them.
If some of these theories are just too far-fetched to be taken seriously, we should not bat an eye and move on.
These are people whose thoughts should only belong in the bottomless pit of YouTube’s comment section, the darkest corners of the dark web and the bargain bin of roadside secondhand book shops.