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Indonesia: Official Support for Fatwa Banning Christmas-Themed Clothing

(Dec. 28, 2016) On December 14, 2016, the Indonesian Ulama Council, a group of Muslim scholars from a number of Islamic organizations, issued a religious ruling, a fatwa, advising Muslims not to wear Christmas-themed clothing.  While urging respect for the rights of Christians to wear attire such as Santa hats, the document said that it was haram (forbidden) for Muslims to do so.  The fatwa went on to state that the government should “prevent, monitor, and punish” any businesses that force Muslims to wear clothing that is against their religion.  (Jen Mills, Fatwa Issued Banning Muslims from Wearing Santa Hats, METRO.CO.UK (Dec. 21, 2016); Herianto Batubara, Isi Lengkap Fatwa MUI Soal Atribut Keagamaan Nonmuslim Haram Dipakai [Complete Contents of the MUI Fatwa Questioning the Wearing of Non-Muslim, Forbidden Religious Items], DETIK (Dec. 14, 2016); Syamsul Hadi, The Indonesian Council of Ulama, INDONESIA AND THE MALAY WORLD, No. 50 (Nov. 1989).)

Following the release of the fatwa, on December 18, 2016, members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a group with the goal of implementing Shariah law in Indonesia, raided shopping areas in a number of cities, inspecting whether stores had required employees to don Christmas-themed clothing.  They were escorted in Surabaya, the capital of East Java Province, by hundreds of members of the Surabaya police and the East Java Police Mobile Brigade.  (Police Escort FPI Members During Raid on Santa Hats in Surabaya Malls, JAKARTA POST (Dec. 18, 2016); Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front – FPI): Summary, TRAC (last visited Dec. 22, 2016).)

While the fatwa is a religious edict, not a law or regulation of the state, in some cases state authorities have supported the enforcement of its provisions.  For example, the mayor of Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, issued a circular asking businesses not to force non-Christians in their employ to wear Christmas clothing.  The mayor stated that the aim of the circular was not to spread intolerance, but to prevent vigilante groups from overreacting to Muslims being forced to wear garb like Santa hats.  The circular requested that employers give workers the freedom to decide for themselves whether to wear Christmas accessories and emphasized that non-Christians could certainly wear Santa hats if the decision to do so is voluntary.  (Arya Dipa & Haeril Halim, Subdued Xmas as Bandung Clamps Down on Santa Hats, JAKARTA POST (Dec. 15, 2016).)

Comments on the Fatwa

One commentator, Azis Anwar Fachrudin, analyzed the December fatwa in comparison with a 1981 one on Christmas celebrations issued by the Ulama Council.  He noted that the recent edict had a more extensive list of scriptural arguments, quoting medieval Muslim scholars going back to the 12th century that expressed the view that Muslims should not greet Christians on Christmas day; the earlier edict did not have similar contents.  In addition, the new fatwa uses broad language on the types of banned attire, that is, those with “non-Muslim religious attributes.”  (Azis Anwar Fachrudin, Insight: Politics of Muslim Identity over Santa Outfits, JAKARTA POST (Dec. 20, 2016).)

Fachrudin elaborated by saying that this definition of Christmas clothing could include Santa suits, the design of which, he argues, became “popular only after a portrayal of Santa Claus with a red and white suit was adopted as part of an advertisement for the Coca-Cola company; hence the red and white colors.  It has, therefore, much more to do with the marketing industry rather than being a religious symbol.”  (Id.)  He went on to argue that the fatwa represents a preoccupation with “somewhat trivial issues.”  (Id.)