Politicizing Christmas: How Dec 25 became a point of contention for Indonesia’s presidential candidates

President candidates incumbent President Joko Widodo (2nd R) and Prabowo (2nd L) and vice president candidates Maruf Amin (R) and Sandiaga Uno (L) sing Indonesia’s national anthem before the draw for 2019 presidential election at election commission office in Jakarta, on September 21, 2018. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)
President candidates incumbent President Joko Widodo (2nd R) and Prabowo (2nd L) and vice president candidates Maruf Amin (R) and Sandiaga Uno (L) sing Indonesia’s national anthem before the draw for 2019 presidential election at election commission office in Jakarta, on September 21, 2018. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)

Muslims aren’t allowed to wish Christians a Merry Christmas — at least according to one contentious interpretation of Islamic law. Yet it’s one many Muslims in Indonesia ascribe to, believing that wishing people of other faiths joy on their holy day equates to validating their beliefs, while casting into doubt your own faith in Allah as the only true God.

It’s no wonder then, that Muslims in Indonesia are reminded not to say “Merry Christmas” to their Christian friends year after year. Some Islamic organizations even go so far as to ban Muslims from wearing Christmas-themed fashion accessories, while all-too-willing hardline groups take it upon themselves to enforce those bans.

This year, our annual Christmas paranoia is playing out on the political front, where the holiday has suddenly emerged as a potentially toxic topic for presidential hopefuls who would otherwise be incentivized to promote inclusivity ahead of April’s polls.

We took a seemingly rosy step toward religious harmony this week when President Joko Widodo’s running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of Indonesia’s top clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), appeared in a video wishing happiness to Indonesia’s Christians this Christmas and New Year.

But within hours, the video had been edited to superimpose a Santa Claus costume on Ma’ruf — an apparent attempt at mocking the cleric.

After it went viral, police identified the maker of the video as a man in Aceh and arrested him on defamation charges under the controversial Information and Electronic Transactions Act (UU ITE) for insulting an ulema. Defamation under UU ITE is a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.

“Spreading a video like that means shaming a cleric. Just because of politics doesn’t mean we can insult clerics,” Jokowi-Ma’ruf campaign deputy chairman Abdul Kadir Karding explained to Detik.

But Jokowi and Ma’ruf’s rivals, Prabowo Subianto and running mate Sandiaga Uno, soon had a Christmas controversy of their own. In a video recently uploaded by his niece, the Gerindra chairman can be seen dancing at a family Christmas party. His campaign now claims that the video is being used as a tool to attack Prabowo’s Islamic credibility.

https://twitter.com/Elina_Vay/status/1077736828436770816

“[Prabowo’s enemies] are panicking. The other day they said that Prabowo is a radical Islamist who wants to turn Indonesia into a caliphate. And then they said he couldn’t lead a prayer. And now it’s about a Christmas celebration. The issues are always personal and not substantial like about the economy,” Prabowo-Sandi campaign spokesman Andre Rosiade told reporters today, as quoted by Detik.

“[Prabowo] did not take part in any [Christian] worship rituals. He came after the rituals. The majority of his family are Christians, they held a gathering and [Prabowo] came after the worship rituals and took part in the poco-poco dance or what have you.”

Andre then attempted to shift the attention back to Ma’ruf’s video, implying that the MUI chairman is being disingenuous, as he never publicly wished people a Merry Christmas in previous years until he became a candidate for vice president.

At any rate, Prabowo-Sandi still trails Jokowi-Ma’ruf by double digits in most polls leading up to April’s election. Political observers have been saying that, unlike the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, the topic of religion wouldn’t play as much a part during the 2019 presidential campaign, with candidates expected to focus on the economy instead.

While that has largely been true, this brouhaha over Christmas shows there’s at least potential for religion to play a role in shaping how Indonesians view their presidential candidates.

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