Malaysia still dodging the issue

By Teymoor Nabili, Al Jazeera

Malaysia’s Home Ministry held a briefing for foreign diplomats on Monday to try to ease their concerns about the recent spate of attacks on Christian churches.

But rather than offering a rational explanation of what exactly the Government is trying to achieve with its attempts to limit the use of the word Allah, the diplomats heard this:

 Our landscape is different from other countries. Malays here are different from other countries.

So said Home Ministry secretary, Gen. Mahmood Adam.

And he may well be right about that, but he was still avoiding the issue.

Because the one fact that the Government still refuses to acknowledge is that the essence of this controversy lies not in the nature of Malaysia’s culture, but in the direct actions of its Government.

It was the Government, not the people, that introduced legislation establishing the principle that the word Allah is exclusive to Islam. (A claim that has been convincingly debunked by numerous experts. Here’s one succinct explanation.)

 What’s especially comical is that even Malaysia’s own Islamic leaders don’t agree with the Government.

based on Islamic principles, the use of the word Allah by the people of the Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism, is acceptable,

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (a Muslim) concurs:

With respect to the use of the word Allah, it cannot be disputed that Arabic speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews have collectively prayed to  God as Allah throughout the last fourteen centuries.  While sensitivities over its usage have arisen in Malaysia, the way to resolve these conflicts is not by burning churches and staging incendiary protests but by reasoned engagement and interreligious dialogue. 

Bizarrely, the consistent calls for dialogue over issues of religious sensitivities continue to go unheeded. (The Jakarta Post expresses similar concerns about the situation in Indonesia here.)

And all the while that Malaysia’s Home Ministry continues to maintain the fiction that somehow its position is the Malaysian people’s position, it is truly missing the wood for the trees.

Because once this particular issue fades away, what will inevitably be left behind in the minds of foreign diplomats – and investors – will be another paragraph in the catalogue of niggling entries that mark Malaysia as a “risk”, a country increasingly unable to reconcile its religious and racial communities, thanks in large part to tone-deaf government.