Christmas ban angers moderates

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2006, 12:00am

Muslim clerics accused of going too far with fatwa

Malaysia's influential and authoritative National Fatwa Council has suffered a public backlash after ruling it is un-Islamic for Muslims to take part in celebrations of other religions, such as Christmas or Chinese festivals.

The council, which advises the government on Islamic matters, said the fatwa was to protect the faith of Muslims from erosion.

'The decision is that Muslims cannot conspire or join in the celebration of the festivals of other religions. They can only celebrate Islamic festivities,' council chairman Harusaani Zakaria said last week.

A day earlier, the same council ruled that 'pluralism and liberalism' were dangerous ideologies that Muslims must reject.

But the ruling has sparked anger and vigorous debate among moderate Muslims and non-Muslims, who, for the first time, are openly lampooning the clerics as backward and dangerous.

'Muslims are forbidden to say Merry Christmas to Christians in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Is this what the imam wants here?' said Johan Abdullah, a Chinese Muslim convert.

'What about the thousands of Malaysians who have inter-married and their children,' he said. 'This time, they have gone too far.'

Many moderate Muslims are shocked.

'It hits at the very heart of everything that is Malaysia - its multiracial, tolerant and forging culture,' said prominent Muslim feminist Zainah Anwar. 'They are preaching a hate ideology.

'Malaysians are not going to take this lying down.'

But the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party said it had urged party members, estimated to number one million, to comply.

A poll by The Star newspaper showed that 86 per cent of respondents rejected the fatwa as a setback to racial unity.

In letters to editors and debates on television and radio, many Malaysians have spoken out against the fatwa.

Although the fatwa has official weight, the government has the final say on whether to accept it.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said government-sponsored festivities for Christmas, Chinese New Year and Muslim occasions were not religious in nature but cultural.

'It's a social event and very popular among all the races,' he said. 'We will continue with it.'

Previously, Muslim clerics have expressed unhappiness that shops have asked Muslim staff to wear Santa Claus outfits and Muslim youths to participate in Chinese lion dances.

The Muslim clerics also oppose Muslim leaders lighting up Christmas trees or Hindu altars.