EDITORIAL: Christmassy Indonesia

Endy M. Bayuni in Jakarta/The Jakarta Post
Asia News Network

Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - Christmas was marked, if not celebrated, by Christians and non-Christians alike in Indonesia this week. Indonesia may be the country with the world's largest Muslim population, but since Christmas is a national holiday, the festive mood prevailed across the archipelago. The government made Monday, December 24 a public holiday, giving people an extended weekend holiday. With most schools out until after the New Year, the week between Christmas and New Year is also an ideal time for many for a family vacation.

Adding to the season of joy are the Christmas lights and decorations in main streets and public areas in Jakarta and other major cities. Department stores, sensing financial opportunities, held grand Christmas sales, and shoppers took advantage of the situation. This may be commercial rather than spiritual, but it is Christmas nevertheless.

Christmas in Indonesia, as elsewhere in the world where it is celebrated, is not the same without its share of idiocies. It's not called the silly season for nothing. In Indonesia, this silliness came courtesy of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), one of the country's bastions of religious conservatism.

Just a few days before Christmas Day, the MUI reinvoked an old fatwa [religious edict] banning Muslims from celebrating or joining the Christmas celebrations. It specifically prohibited Muslims from extending the traditional "Merry Christmas" greeting, saying that doing so amounted to affirming Christian beliefs, most particularly that Jesus is the son of God. Islam recognises Jesus as one of the long-line of God-sent prophets that ended with Muhammad. Islam also teaches that God did not beget a child. One MUI council member even warned President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono not to attend the annual state-organised Christmas celebration.

Since he came to office in 2004, Yudhoyono has rarely defied an MUI edict, but this time he did. He and the First Lady, along with Vice President Boediono and his wife, all Muslims, attended the Christmas party at the Jakarta Convention Centre on Thursday. He gave a speech calling on all religious communities to love one another, a universal teaching found in all religions. The President's official website presidenri.go.id carried a banner with the message "Selamat Natal dan Tahun Baru 2013" [Happy Christmas and New Year 2013].

The social media is abuzz this week with people debating whether Muslims should follow or ignore the MUI edict. Those who choose to extend Christmas greetings argue that doing so will not necessarily influence their beliefs. Never mind the MUI fatwa, they say that Muslims must return the courtesy since their Christian friends, colleagues and neighbours always extend similar greetings during the Muslim Idul Fitri holidays.

This is of course an issue for Muslims to resolve. Christians celebrate Christmas with or without the greetings or participation of their Muslim friends.

The MUI fatwa is simply another attempt by religious conservatives to impose their intolerant agenda on the rest of the nation. Unlike Saudi Arabia, where this fatwa originated and is probably widely observed, Indonesia is a multicultural and multi-religious society. Harmonious relations between different religious groups, essential in the nation-building process, could only come about if they showed mutual respect.

As long as we are still on the theme of a silly season, the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) joined the police in providing security during the Christmas celebrations in some cities. Seriously? Can the FPI, with its long history of violence against religious minorities, be trusted to provide security protection? Sounds like a novelty too good to be true.

Thankfully, peace largely prevailed this Christmas week in Indonesia, as it should do. Most people, Muslims and non-Muslims, marked or celebrated the holiday season without interference.

Our thoughts and prayers, however, must go to the two Christian congregations, the HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi and the GKI Yasmin in Bogor, who were still not able to conduct Christmas services in their churches. They have had this running dispute for years with their mayors and although they have won their legal cases in the Supreme Court, the local administrations still refuse to allow them to open the churches. On Christmas Day, the congregations tried one more time to reopen their churches, but they were harassed and beaten back by their opponents.

Their cases are a reminder that religious intolerance remains a major issue undermining Indonesia's reputation as a vibrant and tolerant democratic society. Religious minorities, including the Ahmadiyah and Shiite as well as selected church groups, have been the target of constant persecution by radical Islamic groups all this year. The state, whose constitutional duty it is to protect religious freedom for all, still has much to answer for in allowing this persecution to continue unabated.

On a lighter note, Yudhoyono had a personal reason to be joyful this week with the birth of his second grandchild. Furthermore the visit of Taufiq Kiemas, husband of former president and chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle [PDI-P] Megawati Soekarnoputri, to Yudhoyono could signal that the two political rivals are finally making peace. Don't you just love Christmas?

As we enjoy the remainder of the holiday season in peace, let us all pray that 2013 will bring improvements to the lives of everyone, Muslims and all the religious minorities alike. Let there be real peace in Indonesia when we celebrate Christmas again next year. Amen.