Malaysian attacks leave ash of confusion

PENANG – Now that the dust has settled on the attacks against nine Christian churches, eight on the peninsula and one in northern Borneo, Malaysians are left to reflect on the consequences.

By Anil Netto (Asia Times)

Many were horrified to learn that four church properties around the capital, Kuala Lumpur, had been hit with firebombs last Friday. Similar attacks followed in subsequent days in the states of Perak, Malacca, and Negri Sembilan on the peninsula, and another across the South China Sea in Sarawak. On Tuesday evening, stones were thrown at a Sikh temple, cracking a mirror at the shrine’s entrance.

Of the nine Christian churches targeted, seven were arson attempts using Molotov cocktails or other fuel-based explosives; another church was smeared with black paint while stones shattered a couple of window panes of a church in Sarawak.

Of the seven arson attempts, only the administrative wing of the Metro Tabernacle Church in Kuala Lumpur was badly damaged in the first incident, while the remaining six incidents were amateurish assaults rather than sophisticated attacks, with fire-bombs causing minimal damage or failing to explode.

The attacks came in the wake of a Kuala Lumpur High Court ruling on December 31 that lifted a ban on the use of the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian “God” by the Catholic weekly newspaper Herald, which publishes supplements in the Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil languages. Sikhs also use the term Allah in their scriptures and have insisted that they will not budge on its usage.

The Herald had used the term Allah to refer to God in its Malay-language section. The government and some conservative Muslim groups argue that only Muslims should be allowed to use the word Allah. These groups say Christians could use alternative terms such as “tuhan“, a more general term.

The church, however, pointed out that the term Allah had been widely used by Malay-speaking Christians in the region for hundreds of years. These include Christian indigenous peoples in Sabah and Sarawak, many of whom speak Malay or local languages.

To defuse the situation in the runup to protests last Friday, the Home Ministry, with the consent of the Herald publisher, obtained a stay of execution of the High Court’s decision pending a motion of appeal at the Court of Appeal.

Christians make up about 9% of Malaysia’s population, with Muslims making up about 60%. In the states of Sarawak and Sabah in north Borneo, the demographics are considerably different, with substantial numbers of Christians in both states living alongside their Muslim neighbors and even within the same families.

Ironically, residents of both states are on the whole puzzled about what the fuss is all about on the peninsula as they have been using the term Allah freely for generations without any problems. All the same, they note that decisions taken on the peninsula are likely to affect them more.

Significant numbers of Christians from north Borneo have in recent years moved to the wealthier peninsula in search of employment. Many churches in the peninsula conduct special Malay-language services to cater to this mobile population, as well as migrant workers from Indonesia. The Herald’s Malay language supplement caters specifically to this demographic.

There are two schools of thought about the attacks within the Christian community. Some Christians, especially those who are English-speaking, believe that the churches shouldn’t push the Allah issue and that they could use alternative terms for God, such as “tuhan“. They say, for the sake of improved inter-religious harmony, the church should compromise to defuse the controversy.

Other Christians, including many in the hierarchy, say that the term Allah has been used by Christians for hundreds of years in the region, and even pre-dates Islam in the Middle East. Many fear that if the church concedes on this issue, it could lose further ground in other areas. They point in particular to how Christian mission schools in the country have lost their religious identity, many of which are now Christian only in name.

Some conservative Muslim groups, on the other hand, are apprehensive that Christians could use the term Allah to confuse potential converts in their proselytizing work, despite the restriction on such evangelizing. Other Muslims, perhaps unaware that the term has been used in Sabah and Sarawak for generations, wonder why Christians on the peninsula are pushing for the use of Allah in Malay only now.

Evangelical work among Muslims is strictly forbidden and one of the conditions in the Herald’s publishing permit is that its circulation should be confined to Christians. But as one preacher during a sermon at a mosque in Penang last Friday asked, “What guarantee is there that the Herald will only be confined to Christians?”

Language as politics
Some observers believe that the issue would not have arisen if it had not been politicized in the first place, as the dispute in Malaysia appears unique among Muslim-majority countries. Critics have accused United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) politicians and the mainstream media they control of fanning the issue to drum up Muslim support for the party after a poor showing in the March 2008 general election – an allegation that UMNO leaders deny.

The seeds of the current controversy were planted in 1986, when a Home Ministry circular was issued prohibiting the use of four terms – including Allah – which it said were exclusive to Islam.

Since then a large sharia law enforcing bureaucracy has mushroomed, including a parallel set of Islamic courts charged mostly with covering Islamic family and religious issues operating alongside civil courts.

Current Muslim opposition political leaders, including Anwar Ibrahim of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Hadi Awang, president of the Islamic Pas party, say that Christians should be allowed to use the term Allah. Both leaders deflated plans for a larger protest last Friday against the High Court ruling when they discouraged their party supporters from joining in.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s less than unequivocal stand in the runup to last Friday’s planned protests by hardline Muslim groups, however, earned him widespread criticism on websites and blogs. “We cannot stop them, as long as it is confined within the mosque area,” Najib was reported as saying of the protesters.

In the actual event, only 300 or so protested at the national mosque in front of a crowd of onlookers, while over at Kampung Baru, a one-time hot spot for restive ethnic Malays, there were only about 20. The small numbers were arguably a reflection of new political realignments in which PKR and Pas have succeeded in winning over a significant portion of the Malay Muslim base.

Former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s outspoken daughter, Marina, noted to international media that the planned demonstrations in the wake of the first arson attempts last Friday failed miserably to draw large crowds.

“I was at al-Jazeera TV giving an interview this afternoon and the people there told me that the organizer of the Kampung Baru demo had said [the previous day] he was expecting 5,000 people,” said Marina. “Plus there was another group of people who urged people not to join the demo because they said the demonstrators are fanatics, and also accused them of the arson.”

Perhaps the bright spot in the darkness is that Malaysia did not descend into chaos in the wake of the arson attempts and there were no reported tit-for-tat attacks against Muslim mosques. And the attacks highlight mounting tensions inside UMNO.

A veteran UMNO politician, Razaleigh Hamzah, told a forum held in Singapore on January 7, a week after the High Court’s ruling in favor of the Herald, that as his party is increasingly rejected by voters UMNO members have pursued racial issues more stridently.

“They think this will shore up their base. They are mistaken about the nature of that base,” he said. “As they do so, they become more extreme and out of touch with ordinary voters of every race and religion, whose major concerns are not racial or religious identity, but matters such as corruption, security, the economy and education.”

Razaleigh cited UMNO’s position in the Allah controversy as a case in point. “In a milestone moment, Pas, the Islamic party, is holding on to the more plural and moderate position, while UMNO is digging itself into an intolerant hardline position that has no parallel that I know of in the Muslim world.”

Najib has since tried to soothe frayed nerves by announcing a 500,000 ringgit (US$149,000) grant to the damaged Metro Tabernacle in the wake of the recent attacks. But it will arguably take more than cash handouts to repair the damage the attacks have had on the credibility of his administration.