President Joko Widodo of Indonesia warned the nation’s devout Muslims on Tuesday not to use violence to enforce a fatwa handed down by the nation’s Islamic council in 2016 against Christmas celebrations, urging tolerance for other faiths.
Police also announced that authorities had green-lighted a plan to deploy nearly 200,000 officers nationwide to protect Christmas celebrations and displays.
While governed by a president who presents himself as moderate and friendly to the West, Indonesia has seen an increase in Islamic intolerance in the last decade, particularly radical Islamic violence at the hands of jihadists. Local Muslims have also increasingly opposed being governed by those of other faiths, notably leading to a blasphemy trial against a previously beloved Jakarta politician after 150,000 Muslims took the streets condemning remarks he made that Muslim politicians were misreading the Quran purposely to hurt his campaign for governor. Indonesia has also experienced the growing prevalence of traditional Islamic legal punishments like public whipping for haram sexual activity.
Suspected Islamists have also attacked cemeteries and desecrated Christian tombs in the past year.
Following the fall of the Islamic State “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, governments in Southeast Asia have also increasingly faced jihadist attacks by returning terrorists and jihadists fleeing the war zones of the Middle East, including a failed assassination attempt against Widodo’s security minister. Widido’s government has responded by sentencing preachers associated with the organization harshly, including handing down one death sentence to a cleric preaching violence in the country.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, though it hosts some regions, like eastern Papua, which are Christian-majority.
Widodo reportedly warned against “sweeping” in particular, an activity that the Asian outlet Coconuts describes as “illegal raids” on businesses exhibiting lively Christmas displays as a way of enforcing the fatwa, which carries no legitimate legal weight in Indonesia.
“In this country, our constitution guarantees the freedom of religious belief,” Widodo reportedly warned, announcing that police had explicit orders to “sternly” shut down any mob activities against Christmas and Christian celebrations.
National Police spokesman Argo Yuwono followed up Widodo’s remarks by announcing that the police force has assigned 192,000 officers to specially protect civilians during Christmas and the New Year holiday, which also often comes under Islamist attack. Yuwono suggested police had reason to believe that jihadists were planning attacks this year against non-Muslims, particularly Christians, and Muslims comfortable with other religions. The police will deploy 10,000 units in Jakarta alone. The total, Channel News Asia noted, is about 30,000 more officers than authorities believed were necessary to protect the country on Christmas and New Year’s last year.
“Based on intelligence data, there are potential risks … so we’re taking preventive measures but we are also ready to take proactive action,” Yuwono said. Other officials hinted that among the potential terrorist plots concocted are the burning down of churches during Christmas, not just shopping mall attacks against Christmas decor.
Widodo urged the country not to embrace radical Islam initially last week.
“We have to continuously strengthen our tolerance, harmony and brotherhood as fellow citizens so we can all enjoy comfort and safety during the upcoming Christmas and New Year,” Jokowi said in a public statement, according to the Jakarta Post.
The announcements this week follow a terrorist attack by jihadists believed to belong to the local group East Indonesia Mujahideen on Saturday. Five jihadists reportedly raided a village in Central Sulawesi province, attacking a mosque at the end of Friday prayers and taking several hostages. The terrorist killed a police officer who responded to the attack.
Police also announced on Saturday an operation rounding up seven suspected jihadists in the nation’s east, where most of its Christian population lives, who police had reason to believe were coordinating Christmas attacks. The individuals are believed to belong to a local Islamic State affiliate. The Associated Press reported that police found in the homes of several suspects “knives, laptops, explosive materials and a bomb.”
The Indonesian Ulema Council, the nation’s top Islamic authority, issued a fatwa against Christmas clothes or Christmas decor in public in 2016, declaring that the festivities were the product of “a foreign culture with which we must not mingle.” Among the clothing banned by the fatwa is a Santa Claus costume or any other typically secular iconography related to Christmas, including elves, reindeer, trees, and other common images.
“Religious images and accessories are used intentionally to show the identity of a certain religion, and represent its tradition and rituals,” the head of the Council said at the time. “For this reason, the use of non-Islamic accessories is against the law, as it is asking Muslims to wear them.”
Despite a statement from police that the fatwa had no legitimate legal power, Muslim mobs attacked businesses featuring the banned images and decorations. Police also thwarted Islamic State attacks that year planned for Christmas week.