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China and its diaspora are abuzz this month with festivities tied to the Lunar New Year, celebrating the last animal in the zodiac, the pig. And while that may not spark much controversy in many countries, it does at least raise an eyebrow across the Islamic world. Swine are identified as “haram” or “forbidden” in the Quran.

There have been isolated calls for an outright ban of the holiday in Southeast Asia. At least incrementally, those demands may have more traction in Indonesia because of volatile cross-communal ties between Chinese Indonesians and native Indonesians.

The commotion seems to be mitigated in part because last year was the “Year of the Dog.” While canines are not expressly identified as haram in Islam, they are controversial. Some conservative scholars apply the view that they are forbidden in the home. A story in the Quran explains how the angel Gabriel breaks a meeting with the Prophet Muhammad because a dog had wandered into the house.

Across Southeast Asia, the prevailing wisdom last year was that non-Muslims should be respectful of Islamic sensibilities and downplay New Year decorations that center on images of the dog. That view continues to hold sway, even more so, in the “Year of the Pig.” In Indonesia, Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin affirmed the need to respect tradition.

Holiday vendors appear to be making the best of an awkward situation. The BBC interviewed one baker in Malaysia who asserted, “[Muslims] buy my cookies for Chinese colleagues and friends who celebrate the holiday. Some also order for themselves because they like the [pig-shaped treats].”

From a Western perspective, the debate highlights the cultural diversity of Southeast Asia. The fact that lively discussion on the matter is common in the public domain suggests tolerance for divergent viewpoints. This sort of exchange is in short supply in some parts of the Islamic world.

Our Vantage Point: Amid Lunar New Year festivities in Southeast Asia, hostility toward Chinese tradition by Muslims is muted. We gloss over sensationalist headlines.

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Image: Red lanterns acknowledge the Chinese festive season. Credit: Topten22photo at Can Stock Photo.

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