The Malaysian Department of Islamic Development recently posted on its website the ‘Guidelines for Muslims Celebrating Religious Festivals of Non-Muslims,’ issued by the National Fatwa Committee for Islamic Religious Affairs during its 68th muzakarah (discussion) on April 12, 2005.
The guidelines have been posted there to serve as a reminder to Muslims not to violate the teachings of Islam if they intend to attend the religious festivals of non-Muslims. So, what are the religious events and activities that Malaysian Muslims shouldn't join? Well, they shouldn't take part if:
1. The event is accompanied by ceremonies that are against the Islamic faith;
2. The event is accompanied by acts against the Islamic law;
3. The event is accompanied by acts that contradict the moral and cultural development of Muslim society in this country;
4. The event is accompanied by acts that can stir the sensitivity of Muslim community.
These criteria seem to be reasonable, since they only advise the faithful not to participate in events that contradict Islamic values. But the religious authorities, who probably don’t want a liberal interpretation of the guidelines, have given specific examples of anti-Islamic practices.
Based on the guidelines, ceremonies and acts that violate Islam include the use of religious symbols such as the cross, lights, candles and Christmas trees. Muslims also can't wear red costumes like Santa Claus outfits or other garments that reflect religion. Possession of ornaments like church bells, Christmas decorations and the breaking of coconuts are also prohibited. Muslims also can’t sing songs that take the form of non-Muslim religious propaganda. Are Christmas carols off limits then?
The ban on the wearing of conspicuous clothing, organizing beauty pageants and cock-fighting might also seem a bit extreme to some, but are perhaps understandable for a Muslim-dominated country like Malaysia. Indeed, in a sense, the guidelines aren’t entirely unjust because some of the prescriptions are genuinely aimed at protecting the Islamic faith. For example, Muslims can’t listen to speeches that insult Muslims and Islam. They also can’t attend ceremonies that serve intoxicating food or beverages.
However, the guidelines include an instruction to the public to first consult with religious authorities before attending the religious festivals of non-Muslims. Does this mean a Muslim employee is violating Islamic teachings if he attends an office Christmas party without asking permission from religious officials?
Ultimately, these guidelines are in conflict with the avowed aim of the government to promote religious harmony in multiracial Malaysia. Even the prime minister’s political slogan and major campaign programme is called 1Malaysia, with a stated goal of preserving and enhancing 'this unity in diversity which has always been our strength and remains our best hope for the future.’
Malaysia should continue promoting pluralism—and that includes tolerating the religious practices of all its people. If Malaysia instead favours a strict implementation of religious edicts, it could end up encouraging mob attacks targeting religious minorities, similar to what’s now happening in many parts of Indonesia.