Moderate Muslims and Islamists clash over Chinese New Year
by Mathias Hariyadi
Controversy surrounds the celebration. For extremists, it is a non-Islamic, Buddhist celebration, and should therefore not be observed. For moderates, it is part of the country's tradition and culture. President Yudhoyono is criticised for failing to protect minorities and stopping fundamentalism.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - A few days before Chinese New Year, known as 'Imlek' in Indonesia, moderate and extremist Muslims are embroiled in a row over the celebration. For the former, there is nothing more natural than to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which begins this Friday and marks the start of the Year of the Snake. For the latter, the event can only lead people astray, and as a Buddhist celebration, it is un-Islamic and should be banned. For most Indonesians however, it is a "great celebration," a family affair when schools, offices and businesses are closed.

The controversy began when some radical Muslim clerics in Solo and Surakarta, central Java, made public statements against the observance, first among them, Zainal Arifin, head of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) in Surakarta. In his view, Imlek is unworthy of celebration because "it is not Islamic, but Buddhist." Many other radical Muslim clerics share his view, and are planning a campaign against feast days that are not part of the Islamic tradition.

Moderate Muslim leaders disagree. For them, it is "both legitimate and understandable" that Muslims may want to mark the start of the Year of the Snake. In Indonesia at least, the event does not have only religious connotations but is a major cultural event with dances, songs and shows, like 'barongsai', the dragon dance. In fact, for Kiai Hajj Abdul Muhaimin, president of Yogyakarta's Interfaith Forum, Muslims can celebrate Imlek.

Conversely, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has come under criticism for failing to protect minority cultures as part of the country's heritage. For many years in fact, Indonesia's Chinese community had not been allowed to celebrate their New Year.

In 1967, General Suharto issued a decree banning all Chinese cultural practices in the country following the death of seven top military officers on 30 September 1965, which was pinned the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). For decades thereafter, anything that was Chinese (objects, celebrations or events) was outlawed, including Imlek (AKA Sin Cia, Chinese day in Indonesian).

In 2000, the late reformist President Abdurrahman Wahid (AKA Gus Dur) lifted the ban and allowed Chinese-Indonesians to celebrate openly their traditions.

Since then, many Indonesians began studying traditional Chinese dances, like the dragon dance, as well as Mandarin.

For the past three years, Imlek has been a national holiday.

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