In a story that went viral around the world, most major media outlets reported that the tiny Sultanate of Brunei had banned the public celebration of Christmas. The story caused ripples of disquiet throughout the South East Asian region and sparked outrage and various social media “solidarity” campaigns, with various people posting and sharing pictures of Christmas trees and other Christmas symbols in an attempt to support Brunei’s Christians in the face of the apparent ban.
Malaysia’s Federal Minister, Salleh Said Keruak, has hit back against the world’s media, claiming that they have unfairly misrepresented the ban and published what he calls “false news.” In a blog post on Saturday, Salleh claimed that Western media outlets had “hidden behind” the idea of a free press in order to fabricate the Christmas ban story.
“Take the news that has gone viral regarding Brunei imposing an absolute ban on Christmas. That news is now proven wrong but the damage has been done because this ‘news’ has gone viral.”
While it is true that no “absolute” ban on Christmas was declared, Salleh’s comments fail to specify which, if any, news outlets reported it as such. He also puts forward the rather worrying proposition that the theory of evolution is only an opinion, but then goes on to say that it is important to defend the right of others to hold this “opinion.” A search of stories from several major news outlets reveal that the story of a total ban on Christmas was not reported by any of them. It is possible, however, by reading only the headlines of these stories, to gain the impression that Christmas has been outlawed in Brunei.
The real situation is rather more complex. In previous years, Brunei appears to have caught on to the idea of Christmas as a retail extravaganza. Many locals mentioned that previous Christmases had been heralded by stores and other businesses covering their displays and installations with Christmas trees, tinsel, and impressive displays of Christmas lights. Christmas carols are said to have been blaring from the public address systems of most shopping malls. It is this, mainly, that has been banned. The Sultan’s position would appear to be that these celebrations are unrepresentative and would undermine the faith of his majority Muslim subjects. Brunei’s Christians have not actually been hindered from celebrating Christmas in any way other than being prohibited from exposing their Christmas decorations to public view. The Malay Mail and Malaysian Insider both published firsthand accounts of Brunei’s various Christmas celebrations, including a well-attended public mass and the usual Christmas meals and gift exchanges. They both point to the display of modest decorations outside public homes, and note that the focus of enforcement has been on the tiny nation’s disproportionately large shopping malls. This would seem to bear out the limited nature of the ban.
It is often forgotten that the celebration of Christmas does, in fact, reach to most Muslim countries. Islam’s broad position on Jesus is that he was a major prophet, and there are both Shia and Sunni celebrations of his life and teachings. While generally much quieter and of course lacking much of the religious content of Christian celebrations, many Muslim families have absorbed some of the more secular elements of the Christmas tradition and will sometimes put up trees and exchange gifts. It is thus that many residents of Brunei have been reported as deriding the ban as “ridiculous,” with one man telling the Malay Mail that he had never felt his faith threatened by hearing Christmas carols.
None of this should be taken to imply, however, that the Sultan of Brunei is some sort of liberal. Recently, the strict, Sharia-based penal code of hudud was introduced into the country, the culmination of the Sultan’s much-publicized intention to apply Sharia law to the country. This code includes the harsh punishments made famous by Saudi Arabia, a nation which operates the same code, and includes penalties that involve stoning to death and the severing of limbs. The Christmas ban is in line with this shift, and reflects the Sultan’s paternalistic attitude towards the country’s Muslim population.
Brunei is an oil-rich nation on the North coast of the island of Borneo. It has a population of approximately 430,000 and a Muslim majority population (67 percent). Only 10 percent of Brunei’s population is Christian, but the richness of its oil resources means that the sultanate has developed a diverse culture colored by the relatively large numbers of expats and foreign workers who help to service its energy industry. On top of this, Borneo’s tribal character leads to further diversity, and another 10 percent of its population subscribe to various indigenous religions. The Sultan is one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchs, ruling by decree and without democratic or constitutional limitations on his power.