The Indonesian media and blogosphere lit up on Thursday with condemnation of a conservative Muslim minister who expressed embarrassment about shaking hands with US First Lady Michelle Obama.
Critics accused the minister of lying about the “hand-shaking incident” and bringing shame to the mainly Muslim country, which President Barack Obama held up as a model of tolerance and diversity during his brief visit this week.
The first lady became the unwitting focus of an online debate over religious tolerance and women’s rights when Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring messaged his thousands of Twitter followers that he had reluctantly shaken hands with her at a formal reception on Tuesday.
Sembiring is a conservative Muslim who refuses to touch women he is not related to, and has previously outraged liberal society by suggesting AIDS funding is a waste of public money and linking natural disasters to immorality.
“I tried to prevent (touching First Lady Obama) with my two hands but Mrs Michelle moved her hands too close to me, so we touched,” he Tweeted on Tuesday, sparking a firestorm on the hyperactive Indonesian blogosphere.
Video footage of the meeting suggested otherwise, showing Sembiring reaching out to shake Michelle’s hand, like the other dignitaries had done.
Rather than call a press conference to face the media in person, Sembiring defended his beliefs by posting comments on Twitter and Facebook on Thursday.
“I still stand by the position that I will not shake hands with women who are not related to me,” he wrote in a series of 14 numbered Tweets to his 110,000 followers.
He added that “some situations happen suddenly, or I meet people who don’t have any idea about my beliefs.”
“Usually in state-related events, or sometimes after praying, there are ladies who scramble to shake hands.”
He claimed that his encounter with Michelle Obama was such a moment, even though they met as she followed her husband down a long line of assembled officials, shaking hands with each in turn.
“I offered my two hands in a Sundanese-style greeting (held together as if in prayer)… And then the hand-shaking incident occurred,” he explained.
Most Twitter users were scathing in their condemnation of the minister.
“Of course, the communications minister is stupid, naive and inconsistent,” wrote one.
“It wasn’t about shaking hands. It’s the lying!!!!” wrote another.
One user wrote: “He’s just embarrassing.”