Use of the term ‘Allah’: Who is threatening whom?

The Dec 31 High Court ruling reversing a Home Ministry ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ for the Catholic weekly newsletter Herald in its Bahasa Malaysia section appears to have given the religious hardliners the perfect New Year present to continue their crude campaign aimed at fanning Islamic religious sentiments in the country.

Press Statement by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee (Centre for Policy Initiatives)

Malaysians – those not religiously affiliated to Catholicism or Islam – are wondering if the extremist reaction by Utusan Malaysia and its fellow travellers serves any purpose, especially since the Prime Minister has assured that the government is aware of the sensitivities of Muslims, and called for calm and for the matter to be resolved through the court process.

Below is an example of what Utusan has been feeding the Malay public.

From Utusan Malaysia, Jan 3, 2010

Starting from the banner splashed across its front page and items filling up pages two, four and five, the paper ran headlines and opinions ranging from ‘Court does not respect sensitivities of Muslims’; to inexplicably calling for the civil case to be heard in Syariah Court; to appealing for Muslim unity; suggesting for the Religious Department to act as intervener in the court process; and beseeching intervention by the Council of Rulers.

The tally of 16 news articles does not include other lengthy op-eds in the middle pages about the mission to defend Islam, including one by Dr Mohd Ridhuan Tee Abdullah.

The flagship Utusan editorial by Awang Selamat invoked Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria’s claim that “all these happen due to the weaknesses and disunity of Muslims”.

Playing Cassandra, Awang Selamat proclaimed that the Malay “discord and foolhardiness in politics, has pushed Islam to the corner”, and added “It is embarrassing that Islamic parties cannot unite in ensuring the survival of Islam”. He laid the blame at the door of “certain liberal-thinking leaders in PAS like Khalid Samad, who is a great supporter of the use of the term ‘Allah’ by other religions”.

In what is probably the single most fear mongering statement made by a newspaperman, Awang Selamat made the absolutely ridiculous claim that “status quo Islam di Malaysia boleh berubah bila-bila masa kerana angkara pemimpin Islam sendiri” (the status quo of Islam in Malaysia can change at any time because of Muslim leaders themselves).

‘Utusan Malaysia’ itching for a fight

My other distinct impression is that Utusan and the racial and religious hardliners aligned to it – and that appears to include Dr Mahathir Mohamad – are spoiling for a fight.

They should not and will not get a fight. What they are getting instead is reasoned and calm arguments on why this issue should not be blown out of proportion.

According to Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew, Christian natives in Borneo have been using ‘Allah’ for 400 years and clearly long before Sabah and Sarawak agreed to merge with the peninsula. Hence, it is quite simply a matter of language and terminology which has nothing to do whatsoever with the ridiculous suspicions and concerns of backdoor conversions and worse that are now being bandied about (for a fuller discussion, see Existential angst in objection to ‘Allah’ use, by Dr Lim Teck Ghee and Helen Ang in .

Sane and sensible Malaysians following the ugly and pugnacious words coming from the extremist side must be wondering how in God’s name could Muslims perceive that there is a threat to Islam in Malaysia, given Malay and Muslim dominance in almost all sectors of the body polity.

According to the Catholic Hierarchy organization, there are about 784,000 Catholics in our country of 24.74 million or 3.17% of the total population. Can anyone believe that such a tiny minority of the country’s population could threaten the position of Islam in Malaysia or undermine the Islamic faith?

Dr Mahathir, from whom one would expect a higher sense of public responsibility, has been reported to have said that he is concerned that the term Allah may be used in such a way that could inflame the anger of Muslims, or in his own words, “they may use it on banners or write something that might not reflect Islam”. This is a statement that stoops so low that it is almost beyond belief that it could have come from a former Prime Minister.

Surely the ex-Prime Minister is aware that not only are there 13.37 million Muslims in the country or 52% of the population of 25.72 million if the latest CIA World Fact Book is to be believed, the primacy of the position of Islam is fully guaranteed both through Islam’s status as the religion of the Federation enshrined in the constitution, and the position of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and Malay state rulers as heads of the religion.

If he is not, then other Muslims in the country should tell Utusan, Dr Mahathir and others of similar ilk how confident and secure they feel about their religion in the face of this ‘historic’ and ‘unprecedented’ threat from non-Muslims.

The real threat to Islam is in the feverish minds of the extremists rushing to prove their ‘purer’ Islamic credentials. If they can purge themselves of these imagined furies, we will all be able to sleep more peacefully in Malaysia.