Politics of Muslim identity over Santa outfits

As Christmas approached, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MU) issued a fatwa (edict) prohibiting Muslims from wearing “non-Muslim religious attributes”. Not surprisingly, on the pretext of the “familiarization” of the fatwa, members of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) have conducted raids of attire considered symbols of Christmas, such as Santa hats, in a few cities.

The fatwa has gone further on three levels as compared to the 1981 MUI fatwa on Christmas celebrations.

First, it has a much longer list of scriptural arguments backed by opinions of medieval ulema saying that greeting Christians on Christmas is forbidden in Islam. This is not in line with the 1981 fatwa that only prohibited Muslims from participating in the Christian rituals of Christmas and not prohibiting them from saying “Merry Christmas” — in fact, the MUI leader at that time, Buya Hamka, allowed it; so did the previous MUI chairman, Din Syamsuddin.

Second, the fatwa has a much broader definition of the very object it is against, i.e. “non-Muslim religious attributes”. Misunderstandings may arise if this includes the Santa suit.

The Santa outfit has become a tradition over the last century. It 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.

The red-and-white Santa outfit is thus the westernized, or more precisely Americanized, portrayal of Saint Nicholas. In fact, if seen as a commoditization of the sacred embedded in a capitalist system of economy, it may contravene the meanings in being religious, such as charity and altruism, to name a few. In short, the Santa outfit is not a religious attribute; it is a capitalist attribute.

Third, and most importantly, it is difficult to make sense of the reasoning behind the fatwa. The 1981 fatwa is plausible, as it only deals with ritual participation, and the MUI leader at the time backed up his argument by an analogy that the Christians, conversely, cannot participate in, for example, the Muslim five daily prayers.

The current fatwa, on the other hand, has no ground other than a literal adherence to a popular, elusive hadith saying, “whoever imitates any people, s/he is one among them”. From this hadith derives the reasoning, as suggested in opinions of medieval ulema, that celebrating Christmas, including saying “Merry Christmas” and wearing Christian religious symbols, is tantamount to confirming a Christian spirituality.

That reasoning cannot hold up because today many people greet Christians on Christmas or wear a Santa outfit only for social purposes, having no intention of claiming Christianity as their religion. Besides, if applied consistently to all issues, the literal reading of the hadith will bring about the dismissal of many attributes worn or adopted by Muslims yet similar to or originated from other religions or cultures.

Ulema, priests and rabbis wear robes. Rosary or prayer beads are used in Islam, Christianity and Judaism; Buddhist monks use prayer beads, as well. Do not forget our national symbol the Garuda bird, which is of the mount of Vishnu that originates from Hindu mythology. Adopting a Garuda as a national symbol certainly does not mean Indonesian Muslims promote Hinduism.

So, why did the medieval ulema’s opinions come up with that reasoning? The instructive part of the Dec. 14 MUI fatwa is that all the ulema cited to back up the arguments were all coming from no earlier than the 12th century CE. This context is important to consider.

There is no explicit statement either in the Quran or hadith, which suggest the reasoning. It is ulema’s interpretations of the Quran and commentaries of the hadith that do. Further, a story in the earliest biography of Prophet Muhammad narrated that the Prophet allowed Christians of Najran to conduct their rituals in the Nabawi mosque of Madinah — and this story was assessed as valid in Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah which, ironically, was among the cited in the MUI fatwa.

It was the ulema who lived in that era onward who enhanced the arguments that set a boundary between a Muslim identity and any symbol perceived as relating to non-Muslim traditions — this doctrine is known in Salafi discourse as al-wala’ wal-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal).

In today’s discourse, with narratives of enemies in Muslim communities, the defense mechanism of preserving an exclusive Muslim identity will take place; and the alwala’ wal-bara’ doctrine will find momentum.

Regardless of being the majority, if the Muslim masses “feel threatened” (to borrow from Mujiburrahman, 2006), Indonesian Muslim popular discourse will remain the same, i.e. preoccupied by somewhat trivial issues, such as wearing Santa hats, greeting non-Muslims on their holidays, opening daytime restaurants during Ramadhan, reciting the Quran using a Javanese melody and so on so forth.

— This article was originally published in the Jakarta Post, 20 December 2016

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