A victory for Christmas in Indonesia

The drizzle didn’t spoil the street party in Jakarta that ushered in the New Year. About 200,000 people converged in the main square of the Indonesian capital on New Year’s Eve to party and watch the fireworks light up the sky above the city’s skyscrapers. If the shamans had done a better job repelling the ...

Photo by JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP/Getty Images

The drizzle didn’t spoil the street party in Jakarta that ushered in the New Year. About 200,000 people converged in the main square of the Indonesian capital on New Year’s Eve to party and watch the fireworks light up the sky above the city’s skyscrapers. If the shamans had done a better job repelling the rain, the turnout could have reached the 700,000 that Jakarta governor Joko Widodo had hoped would turn out. 

For more than three decades, street parties were banned in Jakarta for security reasons. During the height of the rule of the dictator Suharto in the 1970s, any assembly of more than five people was deemed a security threat and required a police permit. While street parties were not officially banned, they were discouraged. As a sign of new confidence, Jakarta and other cities decided this year to welcome the New Year with street fiestas. Police were out in full force, but largely to deal with traffic, not disturbances. The mood in the streets was one of joy, despite the wetness.

Like much of the rest of world, the New Year celebrations capped the week-long holiday season that started with Christmas. Indonesia may be the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, but Christmas is celebrated, if not at least marked, regardless of people’s faith, because the two public holidays are so close together and also coincide with the schools’ holiday break.

But not everyone is on board, including the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), a staunchly Islamic conservative outfit that declares that Muslims should not join in any of the Christmas celebrations. In fact, it has even told its followers to avoid saying "Merry Christmas" to Christian friends.

An MUI fatwa (religious edict) issued a few days before December 25 said that extending Christmas greetings amounts to affirming Christian belief, and, specifically, to confirming that Jesus is the son of God. This contravenes the Islamic teaching that says that God does not beget a child, and instead views Jesus as one of a long-line of God-sent prophets that came before Muhammad.

The claim that giving a Christmas greeting is haram (religiously forbidden) inevitably caused some anxieties among Indonesian Muslims who have Christian friends, colleagues, and neighbors. A heated debate ensued in social media about whether they should abide by the ruling or simply ignore it.

Those who choose to ignore it argued that extending greetings is only courteous, helps build bridges between people of different faiths, and does not affect their own beliefs. Some Muslims heeded the MUI edict. Most Christians are simply bemused by the debate, and pressed ahead with their Christmas celebrations no matter what. This, many seemed to feel, is an issue for Muslims to resolve.

Reactions to the ruling may have been mixed, but one clue that Muslim conservatives are not winning this time around came when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono decided to ignore the MUI by attending an annual Christmas celebration jointly hosted by various Christian groups at the Jakarta Convention Center on December 27.

The president, Vice President Budiono, and their wives — all Muslims — came to the gathering. As a further indication of where Yudhoyono stands on this debate, his official website carries a "Happy Christmas and New Year" banner. In his speech at the Christmas celebration, he said that Indonesia’s different religious communities should uphold the universal principle of loving one another.

Christians are the largest religious minority in Indonesia, making up approximately 8.8 percent, while Muslims officially account for around 88 percent of a population of 240 million. However, Indonesia is not an Islamic state, and religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution. Protestantism and Catholicism are among the six officially recognized religions, along with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. All these religions’ major religious holidays are national public holidays.

There were concerns that President Yudhoyono would follow the fatwa on extending Christmas greeting, as in the past he sided with most other MUI edicts. The MUI has come out with many controversial fatwas, eager to push its conservative agenda on the rest of the nation. In spite of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, the government at times regarded MUI rulings favorably, as in the case of a fatwa that proclaimed the Ahmadiyah faith of Islam to be a heretical sect. While it has stopped short at outlawing Ahmadiyah, Yudhoyono’s government has imposed severe restrictions on this religious group.

Although often referred to as "edicts," MUI fatwas are usually regarded by officials as legal opinions that are not binding on the government or on the people. It is left to every party’s own discretion to follow or not. This explains why MUI has come out with many ridiculous fatwas — including bans on yoga, permanent hair straightening, and pre-wedding photos — that also explain why many Muslims decide to ignore them. Going by the reactions of people and government officials, the ban on Christmas greetings must count amongst MUI’s most silly edicts.

At any rate, it’s hard, if not impossible, for Indonesia’s religious conservatives to prevent Muslims from taking part in Christmas celebrations, even if passively. Since December 25 is a national holiday, a festive mood sets in by default (compounded by the fact that the government has also declared Monday, December 24, as a day off in order to grant people a long and extended weekend holiday). Even if they don’t celebrate Christmas, the benefits of the long holiday are enjoyed by all. With public schools also closed until after New Year’s, for some people this week also means a holiday with the whole family.

And then there’s the commercial aspect. Most department stores in Jakarta have caught up with the festive mood by putting up Christmas decorations and having Christmas sales, just as they do during celebrations for the Muslim Eid holiday and the Confucian Chinese New Year.

In Indonesia’s version of the culture wars, this time the liberals have prevailed over the religious conservatives.