The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the nation’s top Muslim cleric group, issued a fatwa recently prohibiting companies from forcing employees to dress as Santa Claus or wear Christmas-related clothing.
MUI claims that the fatwa respects Indonesia’s diversity, while human rights activists challenged the council, stating it failed to anticipate the fatwa’s destructive effects.
Meanwhile, Islamic groups last week protested in shopping areas in Surabaya, East Java, and Solo, Central Java, urging Muslims to not deliver Christmas wishes nor wear clothing and accessories tied to Christmas and New Year.
Activists and political analysts said the MUI fatwa was done out of political interest.
Freedom Institute research associate Luthfi Assyaukanie has voiced concerns over MUI fatwas in the past few years.
“Before the reformation era (beginning in 1998), MUI issued few fatwas. The only controversial one regarding pluralism was the ban on Muslims from delivering Christmas wishes to Christians, issued by Buya Hamka in 1981,” Luthfi told BenarNews.
“Now almost every year, MUI issued controversial fatwas because there is no authority that has the right to control it anymore,” he said.
Hendardi, chairman of the human rights organization SETARA Institute, said the fatwas failed to represent Islamic efforts in supporting tolerance.
“MUI is focusing more on strengthening its political influence, including the fatwa which labels some groups as deviant and forces the government to recognize the fatwa,” Hendardi said in a statement.
Radical groups represented
Luthfi said MUI was established during Suharto’s reign as president from 1967 to 1998 to control Islamic groups potentially opposing the government.
“MUI was practically able to be controlled by the ruling government. But during reformation, the structure of the organization has shifted,” Luthfi said, referring to the post-Suharto years.
Previously, MUI leaders were appointed by the government. Now, MUI members must represent every existing Islamic organization in Indonesia.
“Then trouble comes. Since every Islamic group must have representatives on MUI, radical groups can appoint theirs,” said an activist for the Liberal Islam Network. “That has changed the face of MUI.”
At least seven people were detained for allegedly conducting an unauthorized sweep at Social Kitchen, a bar in Solo, Central Java, on Dec. 18. Sweeps refers to Muslim groups acting as moral police by raiding venues that they determine do not meet their standards.
“We have arrested two more suspects last night, so we have a total of seven suspects detained,” National Police Chief Tito Karnavian said Thursday during an inauguration ceremony that marked the beginning of Operasi Lilin, an operation to guard against security threats during Christmas and New Year holidays.
Indonesian authorities are deploying 150,000 police and other security personnel as part of this year’s operation.
“I command the Central Java Police Chief to continue the investigation, because the report said there were at least 50 people who raided the bar and conducted violence. I want them to be arrested as a deterrent,” he said.
MUI denounced the sweeps and in an official statement on Dec. 20, MUI Charman Ma’ruf Amin said the fatwa was misunderstood by some people.
“The fatwa was issued to respect the spirit of pluralism and religious tolerance in Indonesia. “The meaning of pluralism is to raise the awareness toward difference, including in observing one’s belief/religion,” Ma’ruf said.
Another key point in pluralism, he added, is to respect others.
“Every coercion is against the human rights and the nation’s constitution,” Ma’ruf said in his statement.
Marsudi Syuhud, secretary general of Nahdlatul Ulama, one of the largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia, said MUI had the right to issue fatwas, but he regreted that groups have used them to conduct unauthorized sweeps.
“Kyai Ma’ruf Amin has urged the people to not conduct such sweeping, because in Islam such coercion is not allowed. I would say no more sweeping,” he said.
“Nurturing tolerance must come from both sides. We need to respect each other and fully understand that coercion in the matters of belief is restricted. Any employee who does not wish to wear non-muslim accessories should be respected.”