Exclusive: ‘Gay Muslim comic’ artist @alPantuni talks to us about leaving Instagram and his recent return

Screenshot of @alPantuni’s restored Instagram page taken on Feb 19, 2019, featuring new comic strips.
Screenshot of @alPantuni’s restored Instagram page taken on Feb 19, 2019, featuring new comic strips.

@alPantuni is back.

The anonymous comic artist triggered a huge outpouring of outrage among Indonesia’s Muslim conservatives earlier this month when his comic strip, which criticizes homophobia from an Islamic viewpoint through the eyes of gay Muslim characters, caused his Instagram account to go viral.

Indonesia’s Communications and Information Ministry (Kominfo) even joined the chorus of those calling for @alPantuni’s censure, going so far as to threaten Instagram with a possible ban from the country if the social media platform didn’t take down the comic artist’s account.

Then, in a move that attracted international media coverage, Kominfo claimed that Instagram had obeyed their wishes by removing @alPantuni from their platform. That, however, turned out to be inaccurate as Instagram themselves denied the government’s claim, saying that the account’s owner had removed it themselves.

After vanishing, @alPantuni returned this week to publish more of his works online through his new and reopened social media accounts on Twitter, Patreon, and, as of today, Instagram.

In his first-ever media interview, the artist spoke to Coconuts Jakarta to tell his side of the story, and why he chose to return despite the risks to his safety.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

First of all, are you comfortable with revealing your identity or would you rather remain anonymous? If you don’t want to reveal your name that’s totally understandable.
Uh… I think I’ll skip the name part.

Do you mind if we ask your sexual orientation? Are you gay?

Are you the only person behind the account or are there many?
I am the only one.

And are you based in Indonesia or Malaysia?
I’ve been to both countries, and have families in both. I can’t answer beyond that, sorry…

Can you tell us why you created the comic strip?
Sure. Initially I made them for fun and posted them on Facebook. The older comics are really more jokes than substance. But eventually, more and more people began messaging me saying that they can relate to my comics. The turning point for me though, is the shooting in Florida, USA — I think it was in 2016. That was when a Muslim guy shot people at a gay club. The comments on social media were so vicious and supportive towards the shooter, and that really hurt me. I guess, after that, I started to fight back by making more serious comics, slowly until where I am today.

The social media comments were from Muslims in Indonesia/Malaysia?
In both countries. There are many nasty comments in the Arabic world too, but I forgot where I read that.

Why did those comments hurt?
It’s because I wanted to believe that Islam is right. But the behavior of Muslims made me feel less trusting towards the religion.

Towards the religion or the believers of the religion?
Towards the religion. But some gays still firmly believe in the religion — and that’s fine. I used to dislike Islam especially after the shooting incident, but my partner, who is strongly religious, helped me to re-discover it again. And it’s unfair that someone who strongly believed in that religion had to suffer because of homophobes.

So now do you still retain some faith in Islam or are your comics an expression of criticism of the faith and its followers from an outsider’s perspective?
I’m not a 100% practicing Muslim, but I still have some faith in Islam… Thanks to my partner. From my point of view, the comics really are just criticism of Muslims and not the religion itself. I think religious interpretations change over time but certain orthodox Muslims refuse to change and are making sure nobody else changes. That’s the problem, I think.

I hope to continue making comics, and hopefully change people’s views that gays are not some evil creatures that need to be killed. Even if it won’t affect much, at least I tried…

On to the recent controversy surrounding your comics, were the comments on social media always so hateful? How long had your comics been published before all the drama with Kominfo?
Initially, the comments were supportive and shared among other gay people. One day, an online preacher/internet religious celebrity found out about it and shared it on his Instagram… That’s when things started to get out of hand.

Were you surprised at all by Kominfo’s initial reaction? That is, reporting you to Instagram?
I’m not surprised, they have to respond to public complaints – otherwise people will say they’re not doing their job.

Even if they have to discriminate against a certain group?
Well, LGBT folks are powerless and can’t fight back politically/economically. So it’s easy for the government to beat them to make the electorate happy. Although i’m surprised that they said my works are pornographic… That’s ridiculous.

Would you consider anything you depicted “pornographic”?
Well, they said in an interview with the Jakarta Post that, “Pornography does not mean that the private parts have to be visible but rather an implied understanding that the character is naked.” By that logic, some sinetrons (Indonesian soap operas) are also pornographic. I suppose they didn’t want to lose face.

Can you now confirm that Instagram did not remove your account in compliance with Kominfo’s request?
Yes, Instagram didn’t obey Kominfo’s request, but it did remove many of my posts for hate speech, even for the most innocent comics.

Is that one of the reasons why you decided to delete your own Instagram account?
I deleted my account because I didn’t want to cause problems for my partner and my friends. Especially my partner who got bullied by people around him just for following me on Instagram (he’s closeted).

At the time, did you delete your other accounts on other social media platforms?
Yes I did. My friends were scared of Kominfo and the police, so I closed them all so they don’t get in trouble.

So what made you decide to come back recently?
I talked to several lawyers, but I can’t disclose what they said… But now I know my rights, that’s why I came back.

Were you also encouraged to come back after receiving so many messages of support from netizens?
Yes, that too.

With you knowing your legal rights now, are you still worried about social reprisal should your comics cause another scandal?
If people back then were afraid to fight against injustice, women would still be in the kitchen right now, subservient to men. We would still have slaves roaming around. So… I’m a little worried, but I’ll do what I can to fight back.

Have you and your partner have accepted the risk?
I have, but my partner would rather live a quiet life. That’s why I don’t want to be too public.

That said, we understand you’ve just reactivated your Instagram today?
Yes. Let’s hope Kominfo isn’t up to no good again, haha.

And you hold no grudges against Instagram for removing many of your comics before?
Well, I’m using their platform, so I have to accept it. Although in a way, they’re being hypocritical about their support of LGBT folks by silencing people.

Are you talking about your personal experience with them or are you also referring to other cases?
Both. I know people who reposted my comics while I was gone, and they got taken down for hate speech.

What did you make of the international media coverage of the controversy surrounding your comics? In case you don’t already know, even The New York Times wrote about you.
Haha I was surprised it got so much coverage. Although it’s mostly because people think Instagram complied with the government’s request to silence LGBT voices. It’s kind of true actually, but Instagram doesn’t want to talk about it, so yeah…

A screenshot of a comic strip by Instagram user @alpantuni, who has received massive backlash in Indonesia for his comic strip series depicting gay Muslim characters.

Okay then, what next for @alPantuni?
Hmmm good question… I hope to continue making comics, and hopefully change people’s views that gays are not some evil creatures that need to be killed. Even if it won’t affect much, at least I tried… That’s all that matters to me. And whether they keep their faith or not, I hope gay people will know that they’re not alone like how i felt before the internet era.

What will you do this time if you encounter more huge opposition like before?
Uh, as long as I do not break the law, I’m not concerned.

Do you feel safe in real life?
I feel safe in real life mostly. I never posted my face online and told my friends not to do the same. Some people thought they already figured out my real name, but that’s not even my real name. So, I feel safe, mostly. Although I have to beef up my internet security nowadays.

Before we wrap this up, how do you see the future of LGBT rights in Indonesia, especially with an election on the horizon?
I don’t think there will be much change… The people here like to emulate the Middle East. I think change will happen when the Middle East changes. But I might be wrong. If LGBT people keep silent, there will be no change.

And do you see either of the presidential candidates — incumbent President Joko Widodo and Gerindra Chairman Prabowo Subianto — as being the better option for the LGBT community in Indonesia?
Hard to say… Either way, even if both candidates are okay with LGBT people, they cannot openly support LGBT people if they don’t want to lose votes. So I doubt it’ll make any difference. Let’s just hope the economy is okay, no matter who is in charge.

Alright. Lastly, does the name @alPantuni have any specific meaning?
Haha it’s just an old name my friends gave me when I was at school. It comes from the word pantun (limerick), because I like to speak in rhymes.

Thank you so much for your time. It’s truly been a pleasure talking to you, and we hope to see more of your work.
Thank you for the opportunity.

To read @alPantuni’s comics, you can visit his Twitter, Patreon, and Instagram pages.

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