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The ghost of Indonesia's Christmas past, religious intolerance, is raised with a tweet about cake

South China Morning Post - December 1, 2019

Joe Cochrane – The controversy started with a photo on Twitter showing a notice in the window of a Western-style bakery in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

The notice, which appeared last week on paper with no letterhead or logo, advised customers the bakery would no longer design Christmas themes or symbols on its cakes over the holiday season. Nor would it design cakes with Halloween or Valentine's Day themes, it added, as if for good measure.

Within days, the post, and later footage of Christian Indonesian women complaining about it at a bakery counter, went viral – perhaps not surprising given that Indonesia has one of the biggest social media audiences in the world.

Many people were swift to blame the Indonesia Ulema Council, the country's supreme body of Islamic clerics, which has a history of issuing controversial religious edicts, or fatwa, this time of year.

But the council flatly denied issuing any edict on cake decorations. And Tous Les Jours, the South Korean bakery franchise in question, denied having any such a policy, saving both sides the ignominy of being labelled "the Grinch who stole Christmas".

Many have since dismissed the Twitter post as an example of fake news, albeit one that could have very real, and ugly, consequences.

Indonesia is already on edge from the growing intolerance shown by radical Islamic groups towards religious minorities including Christians, Buddhists and Balinese Hindus. Recent terrorist incidents have included the stabbing of the country's defence minister by a local Islamic State supporter and a failed suicide bombing that targeted a police headquarters in northern Sumatra. There have been a spate of arrests of suspected Islamic State supporters.

Ghosts of Christmas past

The fact that so many were so quick to blame the MUI, as the clerical body is commonly known, is telling. Back in 1981, the council issued an edict banning Muslims from taking part in Christmas ceremonies and events, and in 2016 its clerics issued another edict banning shopping mall employees from wearing Santa hats or Christmas-themed uniforms.

For decades, the council has campaigned against Christmas decorations being hung in public places and shopping malls, and has warned Muslims against saying "Merry Christmas" to their Christian neighbours and friends.

The edicts are not legally binding, but analysts say they nonetheless show a disturbing trend.

"It's a symbol – a symbol of intolerance," said Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Indonesia. "A lot of it is that MUI is becoming more and more intolerant. It is one of the semistate institutions that facilitates discrimination against minorities in Indonesia."

In the past decade, thousands of places of worship have been forcibly closed on dubious legal grounds or torn down, mostly Christian churches and the mosques of the minority Ahmadiyah Islamic sect, all with the acquiescence of the MUI and participation by some of its members.

"Talk of banning Christmas greetings and Christmas decorations in public spaces is just the very tip of the iceberg in terms of rising religious intolerance that threatens Indonesia's long tradition of pluralism," said Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights group based in Britain, noting numerous incidents of hate speech and violent attacks on religious minorities.

Although 90 per cent of Indonesia's 260-million population is Muslim, it has a secular government and Constitution, and economically influential minority groups. All the major religious holidays are observed, and this time of year Christmas decorations are common in malls and hotels across the country.

For decades, some political parties and hardline Muslim groups have manoeuvred to turn Indonesia into an Islamic nation like Saudi Arabia or Iran, in particular after the country moved towards democracy and political freedoms after the fall of the authoritarian president Suharto in 1998.

Autonomous provincial, district and city governments have since passed hundreds of by-laws inspired by Islamic law, or sharia. The majority of the regulations single out women regarding dress and morality codes, while others are aimed at suppressing religious minorities or gay, lesbian and transgender Indonesians.

Yet, this push by the MUI – which once issued an edict banning pluralism, secularism and liberal thought – and hardline Islamic groups has not gained traction with the broader public.

Yuriko Oktadiana, 43, a Muslim homemaker shopping for brownies at a Tous Les Jours shop in South Jakarta, said she attended Catholic elementary school as a child and had no problem with Christmas decorations at the malls.

"We have to be tolerant, but just not literally practice Christian rituals," said Oktadiana, wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf. "But in recent days, it appears some people have been trying to provoke others online."

Reading a book at a table nearby, Jeffry Sihombing, 49, an Indonesian businessman who is Christian, said he had first read about the hoax Christmas cake notice from a WhatsApp group he belongs to, but quickly dismissed it.

"That's the problem of the masses. Things go viral, and people don't know what is right or not," he said, adding that he didn't want to speculate on who might have posted the notice. "Some Indonesian Muslims are not flexible, but I don't want to cast blame. They are our brothers also."

Given that this controversy occurred in November, some analysts are worried what December might bring. Will it be more internet trolling, another surprise edict against Christmas from the MUI, or even anti-Christmas street protests?

"It's not a general trend but we must look at it, because there is a conservative view growing," said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice-chairman of the executive board of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace in Jakarta.

"On one side, the situation has not improved, but more and more people realise there is potential danger for the unity of Indonesia," he said. "Now there are many groups that are trained and training others to respect harmony, respect pluralism – civil society, religious groups, groups formed by middle-class residents. It's a positive."

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/week-asia/politics/article/3040016/ghost-indonesias-christmas-past-religious-intolerance-raised