‘Allah’ issue splits Malay community

(The Straits Times) Law lecturer Azmi Shahrom has been getting more e-mail messages than usual, and they are all from angry Malays who do not like his views on the raging ‘Allah’ controversy.

Azmi, from University of Malaya’s law faculty, is among those who see nothing wrong with Christians using ‘Allah’ to refer to the Christian God as, he says, it is a generic Arabic word for God.

“Scripturally, it’s clear that it’s not exclusive to Islam,” he told The Straits Times. But many Malays do not agree.

The ‘Allah’ issue has divided not just Malaysians of the Muslim and Christian faith (and Sikhs as well), but has also split the Malay community into bitter halves.

Since the High Court ruled on New Year’s Eve that the Catholic newspaper Herald can use ‘Allah’ to denote the Christian God, many Malays have expressed outrage. But a significant number say they do not have a problem with it.

The difficulty is gauging the extent of support for either side.

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, who takes an in-between position, said it is fair to say that the issue has split the Malays, but it would be impossible to know how big each segment is.

Among those who do not mind the Christians using ‘Allah’ are former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s daughter Marina Mahathir, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) MPs like Khalid Samad and Dzulkefly Ahmad, lawyers like Haris Ibrahim, academics like Azmi, and many more ordinary Malays.

On the other side are Marina’s brother Mukhriz Mahathir, Muslim groups like the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement, bloggers like Umno Youth member Akhramsyah Muammar Ubaidah Sanusi, and of course, the protesters who demonstrated at the mosques a week ago.

Akhramsyah has taken a strong position, writing in his blog: “Am I advocating violence? No, I am not. I am saying that Malay violence is inevitable, at least if the current trend of apologising for Malay anger rather than addressing it continues.”

Marina had labelled as ‘idiots’ those who mourn the ‘loss’ of the word ‘Allah’. In response, Akhramsyah said he was merely conveying the ‘whispered screaming’ of the Muslims.

Their exchange shows how intensely Malays are split on this issue. Initially, when the court decision first came out, many Muslims of all political persuasions protested against it.

As Azmi noted, the fault line in the Malay community has always been along political loyalties, rather than theological differences. In other words, most Malays think alike on religious issues.

But the debate changed after opposition Islamic party PAS issued a statement that there was no prohibition on Christians using ‘Allah’.

Since then, there has been hardly any PAS dissent. It could be party discipline — or it could be, as Azmi believes, the result of information provided to party members.

“The reasoned views will be found in places like Harakah (PAS’ newspaper), and so it’ll be PAS supporters getting the information,” he said. “Malay opinion can be shifted if there’s debate, but the problem is that this is now too limited.”