Herald controversy

Will Abdullah lead the Malaysian moderates from all faiths to defend the middle ground from encroachments by extremist and intolerant groups undermining inter-racial and inter-religious harmony – and start by striking down the Johari ban on Herald from publishing Bahasa Malaysia section and use of "Allah"

It is a great Christmas let-down and disappointment that the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi did not assure Malaysians that he will not allow the middle ground to be intruded and encroached by extremists in Umno or the civil service by striking down unreasonable, arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions on Herald, the Catholic weekly.

I was expecting Abdullah to put to rest the controversy over the use of 'Allah' by Herald in its Bahasa Malaysia section when he attended the Christmas High Tea Reception hosted by the Christian Federation of Malaysia at Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur yesterday, and I dare say that my sense of disappointment was not mine alone but of the entire audience with representatives from diverse religions in the country – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikkhism and Taoism.

In his speech, Abdullah reminded Malaysians not to allow extremist tendencies to take root and undermine interracial harmony in the country.

He said the moderates should play a role in ensuring that members of the public were not swayed by extremist propaganda which played on people's emotions by raising sensitive religious and racial issues.

"I'm really concerned when issues involving religion are brought up from time to time and the attendant problems that all of us would need to address.

"If moderates don't take centre stage, surely extremist elements will occupy it, making us fall for their extremist approach being touted as a religious or national approach."

Abdullah cannot be more right that the greatest threat to inter-racial and inter-religious understanding, goodwill and harmony stem from religious extremists hiding in religious groups, political parties and the civil service who have been intruding and encroaching into the middle ground, edging out the moderates from the centre stage.

This is the main reason why religious polarization has surfaced in its most serious and dangerous form in the past four years in the 50-year history of the nation, gravely undermining national unity and the nation-building process.

The Prime Minister gave an excellent Christmas message when he called on Malaysians to move forward and put the country's interest before any "narrowly-defined demands" as "over the past few months, narrow-mindedness and intolerance propounded by a small group has served to test our faith in each other".

Ask the over two million Christians in Malaysia celebrating Christmas whether they agree with the Prime Minister's sentiments and I have no doubt that there will be a thumping unanimous "Yes".

Ask them to cite a recent example of "narrow-mindedness and intolerance propounded by a small group" which had undermined the national interest with their "narrowly-defined demands", I also have no doubt of a thumping unanimity of response by the Christians in the country – the narrow-minded decision by the Deputy Internal Security Minister,. Datuk Johari Baharum to disallow the renewal of the Bahasa section of the HERALD, the Catholic weekly and to ban the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslim Malaysians and non-Muslim faiths.

Abdullah's Christmas message this year has served to illustrate in a most vivid fashion the losing battle for the soul of the Prime Minister to convince him to walk the talk to project Malaysia as a world model for inter-faith understanding, goodwill and harmony.

It is clear that the writer of the Prime Minister's Christmas message does not belong to the the Putrajajya fourth-storey "movers and shakers" of the Abdullah administration who exercise real power and are not just wordsmiths but people responsible for a series of "narrowly-defined demands" undermining the national interest in the past four years.

Is Abdullah prepared to strike down the most recent blatant example of "narrow-mindedness and intolerance propounded by a small group", regardless of whether they are hiding in the bureaucracy or outside?

MCA President, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, MIC President, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu and former Gerakan President, Datuk Seri Lim Keng Yaik have issued very sweet-sounding Christmas messages. Will they support Abdullah in striking down "narrowly-defined demands" undermining the national interest emanating from within the government machinery, beginning with Johari's unconstitutional edict?

Johari has admitted that he was personally responsible for the decision that the word "Allah" can only be used in the context of Islam and not any other religion, and to impose the new condition on this restriction on the Herald banning the use of the word "Allah" as well as the publication of its Bahasa Malaysia section when the annual publishing permit of the Catholic weekly comes up for renewal in the next few days.

Abdullah owes Malaysians an explanation whether he was privy to Johari's decision or he only knew about it when there was a public furore and protest over the unreasonable, arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions for the renewal of the Herald publications permit.

A poster on my blog has most pertinently pointed out that if the term "Allah" cannot be used by Christians to refer to God in Malaysia, then Malaysia may become an anomaly among the nations of the world, because of the following reasons:

1. The term "Allah" was in use long before there was Islam religion in the world.
2. The term "Allah" was used to refer to God by Arabic-speaking Christians before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed.
3. Malaysia is probably the only nation where the use of the term "Allah" by Christians to refer to their God is prohibited, whereas its use to refer to Christian God has never been prohibited in many countries in the Middle-East and the Americas.

There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims, making Islam the second-largest religion in the world, after Christianity. How many Muslims and others objected to Malaysian Christians' use of the term "Allah" to refer to their God? Is it just only the government of Malaysia with over 15 million Muslims, comprising less than one per cent of the world Muslim population?

Several states, including Johore, Kedah, Pahang, Perak, Selangor, Kelantan and Terengganu use the word "Allah" in their state anthems. Does this mean that these State Anthems will have to be amended to conform to the new Johari directive banning the use of "Allah" by non-Muslims?

Abdullah must not only rail speak up against extremist and intolerant elements who are undermining the middle ground and national interests with their "narrowly-defined demands", but must be prepared to act against them regardless of whether they hail from religious groups, political parties or from the bureaucracy.

The unreasonable, arbitrary and unconstitutional Johari order to Herald to ban its Bahasa Malaysia section and the use of "Allah" is an acid test as to whether the Prime Minister is a leader of Malaysian moderates from all faiths defending the middle ground from extremist and intolerant groups.

Is Abdullah prepared to strike down the Johari order to demonstrate that he is a leader of moderates in Malaysia, not just in words but also in action?

Lim Kit Siang