When Bagia Arif Saputra was growing up in a university town near Jakarta, becoming a jihadist seemed a natural choice for young men like him, who were steeped in the teachings of Islamic fundamentalism. Less easy was reconciling this identity with his sexuality.
“I was living a double life,” says Saputra. “I would go to the campus mosque, try to focus on my prayers … and find myself checking out a guy and thinking, ‘Nice ass’. And then immediately, ‘Astaghfirullah [God forgive me]!’ So then I would have to redo my prayers. It was a vicious cycle.”
Saputra, now 34 and openly gay, recounts this serenely at the meditation centre he runs in the centre of the Indonesian capital. As a mindfulness expert who spent his formative years in student jihadist circles in conservative West Java, his life has combined two vastly different currents of modern Indonesia since its transition to democracy in 1998: the rise of religious piety and fundamentalism, and the explosion of a young, globalised middle-class.
At the Golden Space meditation centre, in a high-rise apartment block, Saputra says he first attracted wider attention when he started appearing on the Indonesian lecture circuit as an “ex-closeted gay jihadist who found his dream job”.
The mere fact of openly identifying as gay in Indonesia, where in recent years the LGBTQ+ community has faced a rise in hateful political rhetoric , raids, and potential criminalisation, seemed remarkable.
“My parents definitely cried and were upset with my ‘choice’,” he says, recalling coming out to his family in June 2015, during Ramadan. “But they still love me and today we have a great relationship.”
Saputra grew up in Bandung, a university town three hours east of Jakarta that is known both for its lively cafe culture and as a hotbed of fundamentalism. He went to a pesantren, a traditional Muslim boarding school, and then to the Indonesia University of Education.
In college, he felt adrift and was soon recruited to the Tarbiyah movement, the student wing of an Indonesian Islamist party modelled on the Muslim Brotherhood. This provided him with a sense of belonging.
He adopted the mannerisms of Salafis, puritanical Muslims who seek to revive the traditions of Qur’anic times: wearing ankle-length trousers and an untrimmed beard, refusing to shake hands with women, forgoing music and TV. At the time Indonesian Islamists were gripped by the Palestinian intifada and they stayed up late plotting to fight jihad alongside those they considered their Muslim brothers.
“I was ready to die,” says Saputra. “Becoming a jihadist seemed like an easy way to go straight to heaven.”
Some of the older boys were later recruited to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian affiliate of al-Qaida.
But Saputra was becoming tormented by the clash between his fundamentalist peer group and his suppressed homosexuality. “No matter how hard I tried to pray the gay away, it didn’t happen,” he says.
He eventually withdrew for a different reason. His parents were upset by his growing disinterest in school and he realised he had gone too far for even his pious Muslim family. At one point, he says, he had even reprimanded his mother for wearing a hijab that was too short.
He left the group, graduated and headed to Jakarta, where he plunged into the underground gay scene.
There, he spent his nights with lonely strangers and days on a carousel of corporate jobs. And he started calling himself an atheist.
Then in February 2015 a friend gave him a week-long meditation course that changed his life. He studied with Umesh Nandwani, a Singapore-based meditation practitioner and Golden Space founder who, Saputra says, was one of the first people to recognise that he was gay.
“I don’t know how he knew, but he unlocked something within me,” Saputra says.
Within four months of completing the course, he had become a dedicated practitioner himself – and had come out to most of the people in his life. Nandwani recruited him to open Golden Space Jakarta in late 2016 and today he oversees 15 trainers.
“Meditation is still something new for Indonesians,” says Saputra. “Some of them think it’s a religious practice and is part of Hinduism or Buddhism. I have to explain to them that it’s non-religious and that anyone can benefit from it.”
At least one in five Indonesians are now middle class, according to the World Bank, and they are concentrated in Java and particularly in Jakarta. While meditation studios are still scarcer than in the holiday island of Bali, those in the capital are riding the wave of Jakarta’s burgeoning wellness industry.
Saputra, who met his partner of eight months at a meditation class, says that despite his own positive experiences since coming out, it is still not easy to be gay in Indonesia.
“Most of my gay friends here are not open, and with good reason. One of them had to undergo an exorcism when his parents found out,” he says. Closeted people often come up to him after speaking engagements, from teenagers to married men, and confess that they are torn about their identity.
“I try to lead by example,” he says. “To plant the seed that there is a possibility of being openly gay in Indonesia and having a good life.”
After his flirtation with atheism, Saputra says he is once again a Muslim. “I fast during Ramadan, but not out of fear.”
His specialty as a counsellor is anger management, because he has a lot of experience wrestling with that feeling. “I carried so much anger within me: towards God for making me this way, towards my parents, towards myself,” he says.
“Meditation has helped me not to suppress this but to process it.”
Saputra believes it is anger that motivates religious fundamentalists too. “They are angry that the world has nothing to offer them,” he says. “It’s a coping mechanism.”
Whenever he sees news of occasional flares of terrorism in Indonesia, such as the Surabaya suicide bombings in 2018, he reflects on how easy it may be for such people to radicalise.
“They probably thought it was the easiest path to heaven,” he says. “I certainly did.”