Indonesian police vow crackdown on Islamic vigilantes after bid by hardliners to clamp down on Santa hats

Indonesian protesters march past a Santa sleigh installation as they demonstrate outside a shopping mall in Surabaya, Indonesia, on Dec 18, 2016.
Indonesian protesters march past a Santa sleigh installation as they demonstrate outside a shopping mall in Surabaya, Indonesia, on Dec 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia's police chief vowed Monday (Dec 19) to crack down on any vigilantes trying to enforce Islamic rulings before Christmas, saying religious edicts do not amount to law in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

His remarks came as religious hardliners attempted to stop retail workers from wearing Santa hats inside malls, saying the festive garb is un-Islamic.

Indonesia's highest Islamic council issued a fatwa - or religious edict - making it sinful for businesses to force their Muslim staff to wear Christmas attire.

The ruling inspired dozens of hardliners to rally outside malls in Indonesia's second-largest city Surabaya at the weekend, earning a sharp rebuke from police chief Tito Karnavian.

"I have ordered my officers to arrest those doing sweeps in an anarchic fashion, because it is a violation of the law," he told reporters.

He also reprimanded two police units caught passing on the ruling to their officers, telling them fatwas "are not a reference for positive law".

The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the prominent hardline group behind the weekend's action, defended its conduct.

"We Muslims were just spreading the fatwa, because as Muslims it is an obligation to support our clerics," Mohamad Mahdi al-Habsyi, the head of Surabaya's FPI chapter, told AFP.

The FPI has urged followers on social media to report any cases of Muslims being forced to wear Christmas attire.

Most of Indonesia's 255 million inhabitants practise a moderate form of Islam, often infused with influences from local ethnic groups.

However critics say an unwillingness by authorities to take action has emboldened fringe radical groups and fuelled intolerance.