Malaysia’s burning churches: In God’s name?

A combustible mixture of race, religion and politics

The Islamic Party of Malaysia, or PAS, part of the main opposition coalition, argues that people of the “Abrahamic” faiths may indeed use the word “Allah”.

The Economist

THE delicate political balance between Malaysia’s ethnic and religious groups has been rocked by a series of attacks against churches, blamed on Muslim fanatics. They began after the High Court ruled on December 31st that a Catholic weekly, the Herald, could use the term “Allah” in its Malay-language edition.

This overturned an existing ban and offended some Muslims, who claim that “Allah” is exclusive to Islam, even though the word means “God” in Malay, and is used by other faiths in, for example, Indonesia. The supposed fear is that Christians are plotting to convert Malays, who make up some 60% of the population and, under the constitution, must also be Muslims. So sensitive is the issue that on January 6th, after an appeal by the government and with the consent of the Catholic church, the High Court suspended its own ruling.

By then, tempers had flared. Several Islamic groups planned to stage protests against the ruling on January 8th. Hours earlier, arsonists descended on three churches in Kuala Lumpur. By January 14th nine churches, a convent and a Sikh temple across the country had been hit. The prime minister, Najib Razak, condemned the attacks, offered compensation, and stepped up security around churches. Prominent Muslims spoke out against the violence. In fact, many Muslims were unperturbed by the High Court ruling. The Islamic Party of Malaysia, or PAS, part of the main opposition coalition, argues that people of the “Abrahamic” faiths may indeed use the word “Allah”.

Some analysts saw the attacks as evidence less of a broader lurch towards extremism than of the fragility of Mr Najib’s own standing. Since an election in March 2008, when the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition suffered its worst-ever performance, competing groups have been jostling for influence. His United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party in the coalition, is keen to be seen as the defender of Malay-Muslim identity. Opposition parties are meanwhile arraying themselves as beacons of moderation.

They accuse Mr Najib of pandering to UMNO’s far right. Last year the government dithered before prosecuting a group of Muslims who had offended Hindus by using a cow’s severed head to demonstrate against the building of a temple. And on January 7th Mr Najib said the government could do nothing to stop the planned demonstrations—though the government has had few qualms about squelching past protests. The extremists may have taken Mr Najib’s demurral as a green light.

That would not have been his intention. Burning churches, and the perceived danger of worsening violence, will unnerve foreign investors and tourists. They make Malaysia look far from the tolerant, prosperous country that most of its citizens think they belong to.