Malaysia’s war of words over God

(Guardian, UK) In countless tourism adverts, Malaysia asks the world to see it as “Truly Asia”. In the past days and weeks, its government’s bid to portray the nation as a harmonious multicultural society has gone up in flames.

Since its high court lifted a three-year embargo that prevents non-Muslims from using the Arabic word Allah in their prayers and literature on 31 December, detractors firebombed several churches and vandalised others across the nation. While there were no casualties, several churches have thus far been hit, with one so severely damaged that its members had to conduct their service elsewhere. Eight of the attackers have now been arrested.

Despite these attacks, Malaysia’s Christians, who make up about nine percent of the 27 million-strong Southeast Asian nation, are insisting that the use of Allah is not exclusive to Muslims, who account for some 60% of the population.

Last February, Malaysia’s Catholic archbishop, Murphy Pakiam, publisher of the Herald newspaper, filed for a judicial review against the ban that was first enforced in 2007 by the then home affairs minister, Syed Hamid Albar, against the Catholic weekly for using Allah to refer to God in its Malay language version.

The rationale behind the Catholic church’s appeal was that Allah is a generic word for God that preceded the spread of Islam. After all, the word Allah, when translated from Arabic, comprises the definite article al, and the noun ilah which means God – connoting a singular deity, a belief common to adherents of the Abrahamic faiths.

Indeed, Biblical scholar Kenneth J Thomas outlined evidence in a 2001 research paper (pdf) suggesting that Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Arab world have used Allah when citing and translating the Bible since the first centuries of Islam.

In Malaysia, its use by Christians developed along similar lines. Since Christianity became widespread there in the 19th century, primarily through the missionary efforts of English colonisers, Allah has been used extensively by Malay-speaking Christian indigenous peoples of the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

When juxtaposed against the fact that Malay-speaking Christians in neighbouring Indonesia have long used Allah in their worship to no complaint, it is understandable that Malaysia’s church attacks have been viewed with much chagrin.

Observers have rightly argued that the rumpus is tied to Malaysia’s ethnic-based political landscape. To be more precise, it arises from the form of Islam nurtured by a segment of the nation’s Malay political elites.

The country’s constitution not only makes Islam the official state religion but also specifies that a “Malay” must be a “Muslim”. With ethnicity tied so closely to religion, defending the purity of Islam against corruption by foreigners has become both a religious duty and a matter of national pride.

This dogma has been fostered by the nation’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), whose popularity is partly derived from its status as a defender of Malay rights.

This would explain Umno’s ambivalent stance on the issue. Even as prime minister Najib Razak decried the church attacks as heinous, his Umno colleagues in government had filed an appeal against the high court decision to overturn the Allah ban. Home affairs minister Hishamuddin Hussein even went as far as to allow demonstrations against the Allah ruling in mosques across Malaysia after Friday prayers on 8 January.

Christians were not the only group targeted by adherents of exclusivist Islam following the fallout from the ruling. On 13 January, the country’s Sikhs became the latest to suffer attacks when vandals threw stones at a temple in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. The Sikhs, who number approximately 120,000, also use Allah to refer to God in their worship.

Even the Hindus are not exempt from this kind of discrimination. Last September, a group of Muslim protestors stamped on a cow’s severed head to protest at the building of a Hindu temple in a Muslim-majority neighbourhood.

Yet there is some encouragement to be had in the fact that not all Malays subscribe to this form of exclusivist Islam. Respected Muslim scholar Asri Zainul Abidin, a former state mufti, backs the use of Allah by non-Muslims. Surprisingly, this is the same stance taken by the opposition Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, which had advocated the full-blown implementation of Sharia laws in past campaigns.

There are even voices of dissent coming from within Umno itself. Veteran politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who has always been something of a maverick, condemned his party’s reactions following the ruling. For Malaysians to stop warring in God’s name, this emerging inclusive Malay-Muslim voice must drown out the rallying cries of the divisive vandals. Insha’Allah.