Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


Santa Hats and Merry Christmas

By Kevin W. Fogg, Dec 26 2016 02:49PM

Selamat Natal! (This is Indonesian for "Merry Christmas!") I'm writing this Boxing Day post to say "Selamat Natal," only because this has become such a controversial thing for Indonesian Muslims in recent years.

This year, one of the big news stories leading up to Christmas was about how the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI, Indonesian Ulama Council), a quasi-governmental organization that issues fatwas, or juridical decisions, for Indonesian Muslims, prohibited any Muslims from using or wearing Christmas-related accessories. (Basically, stores should not ask Muslim employees to wear Santa hats or elf costumes leading up to Christmas.) This decision came out on December 14, 2016, and lead pretty quickly to raids by the rather radical Front Pembela Islam (FPI, so-called Islamic Defenders' Front) of major shopping malls across Surabaya to look for and take action against any Muslims supporting Christmas in prohibited ways. The spiritual leader of FPI, Habib Rizieq, has also gone on his website (possibly NSFW, because of loud audio and radical views) to decry attempts at "Christmas-ization" (Natalisasi) the country's Muslims and accuse the National Human Rights Commission of totaly misunderstanding the fatwa. (Fun update: Habib Rizieq has just been reported to the National Police--again-- for blaspheming another religion.) The MUI reportedly deeply regretted the FPI's actions as inappropriate, but no one was really surprised that the fatwa would lead to this chain of events. It got picked up in the world media, including everyone's favorite American alt-right questionable-news source, and continues to be a sore point locally.

This is not the first Christmas controversy to be caused by the MUI, though. In fact, MUI Christmas controversies date back to 1981, when the first head of the MUI, Hamka (perhaps Indonesia's leading Islamic popularizer and proselytizer of the 20th century) forbade Muslims from taking part in Christmas activities such as songs, nativity plays, or school Christmas assemblies (original fatwa here). Ironically, one of Hamka's sons spoke out in 2014 to say that his late father would have disagreed with the fatwa forbidding Muslims from saying "Merry Christmas," as his father always said "Merry Christmas to you" to his Christian neighbors.

This idea of explicitly wishing Christians "Merry Christmas", though, is one of the on-going points of contention (hardliners like Habib Rizieq are strongly against it). This is probably why my Facebook feed in the last 24 hours has been chock full of Indonesian Muslims explicitly using the words "Merry Christmas" (or, in one case, "Mele Kalikimaka") for their Christian friends. This social media-based, very visible protest against the forces of arch-conservatism is Indonesian Islam at its finest.

So, Merry Christmas to all, and hopefully this post will not Christmas-ize any readers.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.