The Politics of ‘Allah’

Malaysia is still struggling to uphold basic freedoms

Wall Street Journal
God means love in many places, but in Malaysia it can also mean politics. That’s the takeaway from the United Malays National Organization-led government’s attempt to quash the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslim groups. At issue is the Catholic Herald’s two-year court battle to use the A-word in its Malay-language edition—which it claims it needs to do because there’s no other suitable word for “God” in Malay. Last week, the High Court overturned an arbitrary government ban. Yesterday, however, the church agreed to a stay of the decision—at the government’s request—until the ruling can be appealed. So the Herald is once again muzzled.

Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail characterized the decision as “a matter of national interest,” which implies that somehow Muslims across Malaysia would revolt if the Herald were allowed to reference God in another language. Never mind that Malaysians of many faiths have peacefully co-existed for decades.

The real reason UMNO is politicizing the issue and pandering to its conservative base may be to deflect attention from its own political vulnerabilities. The opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, has gained popularity by touting a vision of a secular country in which all religions have equal rights. Even the opposition’s Islamic partner, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party—which hasn’t always supported liberal ideas—issued a statement Monday saying that the Herald’s use of “Allah” is its constitutional right.

Prime Minister Najib Razak called the A-word controversy a “sensitive issue” Sunday. But by allowing his party to continue curtailing freedom of speech, he is only stirring tensions. What a disappointment for a man who ran for office promising to create “One Malaysia.”