BRUNEI is in the international headlines again for its extravaganza of banning Christmas festivities because the Sultan and his Imams fear it would erode Islamic values. Anyone found illegally celebrating Christmas – which includes decorating a Christmas tree, singing Christian songs, wearing a Santa Claus hat or sending Christmas greetings – could be presented a jail-term of up to five years, a hefty fine, or both.
“Some may think that it is a frivolous matter and should not be brought up as an issue. But as Muslims and as a Zikir Nation, we must keep it away as it could affect our Islamic faith,” one Imam said.
Zikir is the Arabic word for a religious exercise in which short phrases or prayers are repeatedly recited using a set of prayer beads – comparable to the Catholic rosary prayer, by the way. To become a blessed “Zikir Nation” is Brunei’s dedicated concept for strategic future nation planning.
We feel that the Sultan can do in his country as he pleases as long as his citizens are content with it – even if the place then makes the impression of a theocracy on tranquilisers.
Whether it is smart or not for the international reception of Brunei and its inclusion in the international community – which has big political and economic implications – is a different matter. There have already been voices to exclude Brunei from the Commonwealth of Nations after the phased introduction of outright Shariah law in 2013. After all, Brunei joined the Commonwealth after signing its Charter in 1984, which upholds the values of democracy, rule of law and human rights – all outright Western values.
However, we won’t join the other crybabies on (social) media on #MyTreedom and so forth who are indignant about the Christmas ban because religious values between the West and the Orient are colliding here once again and they feel their most important spiritual holiday time of the year is being disparaged. We couldn’t care less.
We will just look at the mere facts and arguments.
First of all, a Christmas celebration ban in Brunei is not new. It was exactly the same last year, when Brunei’s Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that any form of Christmas celebrations or showing Christmas symbols is an offense under Section 207/1 of the Syariah Penal Code Order of 2013 which is punishable by a fine of up to $20,000 and an imprisonment of up to five years, or both. The order for non-Muslims not to celebrate Christmas in public goes back to a 2005 fatwa by the State Mufti of Brunei Darussalam. Otherwise, the rights of non-Muslims to practise their religion, as provided under the Constitution of Brunei Darussalam, are respected.
So why is everyone, particularly the British media, so excited about the Christmas ban this year?
Christmas is also banned in Saudi Arabia, Somalia and North Korea. In 2013, Saudi Arabia detained more than 40 people for “plotting to celebrate Christmas.” There wasn’t much of a public outcry in Western media back then. Somalia prohibited Christian celebrations in 2013 but Christians can celebrate “at their own risk” in secret. North Korea, well, does not approve any religion at all, let alone allow religious practices.
In the Maldives, citizens are prohibited from practicing any religion other than Islam, and the Constitution precludes non-Muslims from voting, obtaining citizenship and holding public positions. And still hundreds of thousands of Western tourists flock into the country every year. In Sudan, following the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, the Muslim-majority northern part banned the construction of new churches and is partly bulldozing existing ones.
Christmas (and Christianity, and all other religions, for that matter) used to be entirely banned in atheist countries such as Cuba and Albania. They are still banned in communist-ruled China. In Germany under the Nazis, Christmas was instrumentalised by Adolf Hitler and Christmas songs got new, ideologically streamlined lyrics and Hitler replaced Jesus as saviour. Today, German cities with leftist governments such as Berlin are doing away with celebrations in public places as an expression of secularity.
And in the era of the Puritans in the mid-1600, Christmas was even banned in the UK under Oliver Cromwell and in the US as it was found that there was no Biblical reason for celebrating it. For example, the Church of Scotland prohibited Christmas quite effectively with the result that it was celebrated very quietly in Scotland until the 20th century. It only became a public holiday in 1958. Christmas wasn’t officially recognised in Massachusetts until 1869. Today, some US states, particularly in New England and on the East Coast, strive to have religion-neutral calendars. In Maryland, considered to be the birthplace of religious freedom in America, Christmas holidays are called “winter break.”
This means, in short, that a Christmas ban in Brunei is not a singular act by a particular rogue nation.
But, well, many issues arise when religions start to compete for supremacy. In Brunei’s case, one has to wonder whether the Imams are so insecure in their religion’s perceived supremacy that they need fatwas to suppress others? Do they fear that in the moment Bruneians spot a shiny Christmas tree or a Santa Claus impersonator they will convert to Christianity right away? Are Muslim beliefs shaky enough to be threatened by someone wearing a Santa hat or when seeing a cross or lightened candles?
What Brunei’s leader probably means is that Christmas nowadays is recognized less as the birthday of Jesus Christ – who is the prophet and messiah Isa Ibn Maryam in Islam and as such a fully accepted and significant religious figure -, but more as a secular, commercialised holiday of materialistic gift-giving, celebrating and feasting. Many Christians are opposed to that too.
However, the Christmas ban and the bad press Brunei gets through it once again are not helpful in any way. The country, which is already starting to struggle with economic problemsarising from low oil prices, is manoeuvring itself towards a global position of a religious pariah state, leading to more economic damage (such as the boycott of Brunei-owned international hotels, voices demanding the confiscation of Brunei-owned farmland in Australia or the boycott of already loss-making Royal Brunei Airlines) and, of course, needlessly stoking up the already overheated conflict between Western and Islamic values.
We have reached a situation that a predominantly liberal-minded, enlightened Western culture starts to call for retaliation, as primitive as that may be. It makes figures like Donald Trump look more sensible, it drives people to far-right wing groups such as the National Front in France which wants to ban Islam straight away, it leads to initiatives such as the Facebook group BoycottBrunei that identifies Brunei as a global “problem nation.” In the past, such smouldering conflicts have led to movements such as the National Socialist Underground, a far-right German terrorist group whose members killed immigrants, among them many Muslims, out of xenophobic and islamophobic sentiments.
Most people with a rest of a sense of responsibility wouldn’t really want that to become worse. Therefore, Chrístmas bans and any other fundamental nonsense of any faith should be repelled by all involved, including Bruneians, for that very reason.
And of course the question arises what would be the reaction of the Muslim community if it was a Christian nation that banned important Islamic celebrations such as Eid al-Fitr, or others?
Let’s see what happens to Chinese New Year festivities next year in Brunei, or during Diwali. Isn’t the Royal Guard of Brunei’s Sultan made up of Hindu Nepali Gurkhas?
It is probably all a big cultural misunderstanding.
Tue, 22 December 2015