Bigger Issues Lurk Behind Allah Debate

KUALA LUMPUR — Fatwa, imam, hajj — words that have passed the lips of millions of people in the Muslim world and beyond. Here in Malaysia, where religious tensions periodically simmer and boil, non-Muslims can be jailed up to a year for writing or uttering them outside of an Islamic context.

By Thomas Fuller (New York Times)

More than two dozen words and phrases are banned for non-Muslims by a law that ostensibly seeks to prevent members of other religions, chiefly Christians, from trying to convert Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of Malaysia’s population.

Until recently the ban, which carries a maximum one-year prison sentence, was obscure: it has only been used once in court, according to Pawancheek Marican, a Malaysian lawyer who has written about it.

Now a debate about these banned words has become the latest chapter in what is known here as the Allah issue.

A decision in December by a judge to overturn a government ban on the use of the word Allah by a Catholic newspaper has led Malaysians of all traditions — Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus — to question the boundaries of religious freedom.

In January the government announced it would appeal the Allah case.

Tensions escalated when churches were burned and the severed heads of wild boars, offensive to Muslims, were found in the compound of two mosques.

The issue has embittered Christians and roiled Muslim sensibilities. But in a country where religion and ethnic politics are intertwined, many people see the issue as more politics than religion, a reflection of the country’s persistent political turmoil.

The Allah controversy is unique to Malaysia. Christians in neighboring Indonesia and in the Arab world use the word freely.

It comes at a time when Malaysia’s economy is struggling to rebound, foreign investment is flat and the long-term prospects for the erstwhile Asian Tiger are uncertain. The economy shrank an estimated 3.6 percent last year, and the International Monetary Fund forecasts a meager rebound this year of 2.5 percent.

“If the economy does well, a lot of people’s attention will be on their livelihoods as opposed to issues that drive us apart,” said Khairy Jamaluddin, the head of the influential youth wing of the United Malays National Organization, the lead party in the governing coalition.

Because of its polyglot patchwork of ethnic groups and riches in natural resources, Malaysia is distinct from other Asian countries, both more volatile and better endowed. But it is tempting to see Malaysia’s political woes as a warning flag for China and other countries currently relying on economic growth as a political salve.

When the growth stops the divisions in society seem to deepen. Malaysia enjoyed 9 percent annual growth for the early part of the 1990s, but those years of autopilot economic successes are gone. Malaysia’s political class is in tumult, obsessed with what one maverick member of the governing party calls “infantile ethnic politics.”

The Malay Muslim governing class is divided between dreams of continued political supremacy — every prime minister since independence has been Malay — or a more multiethnic political template espoused by the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister. Mr. Anwar is Malay, but his party includes top officers of other ethnicities.

Mr. Anwar led the opposition to record gains in 2008, nearly unseating the government. He is now on trial in a highly politicized sodomy case. (He was also charged in a separate sodomy case a decade ago and was ultimately acquitted.)

Initially some politicians saw the Allah issue as a battering ram to defeat the opposition, unite Malay Muslims and reduce the reliance on minorities for political support. The government, which usually suppresses street demonstrations, allowed Muslim protesters to gather. They changed their minds after the church burnings.

Rather than fortifying the governing coalition, the Allah issue has proved awkwardly divisive, angering Christians living across the South China Sea in the two Malaysian states of northern Borneo, who are linchpin members.

Scrambling to keep their creaking political alliance together, government ministers suggested a strangely bifurcated policy on the divinity: Borneo Christians are allowed to use the word Allah, but Christians on the mainland are not.

The Allah issue spans a series of laws and government regulations, but the main list of banned words dates to the late 1980s. Among other words and phrases banned for non-Muslims are sheik, mufti, Allahu akbar (God is great) and inshallah (God willing).

The larger issue for Malaysia is more existential. There remains a lingering question mark over the sustainability of an ethnically segregated political system — Malays, Chinese and Indians have separate parties — in what has become a relatively modern and cosmopolitan society.

Many Malaysians who live in the country’s multicultural urban areas say they no longer identify with an ethnic-based political system. The parties representing Chinese and Indian voters in the governing coalition were nearly wiped out in the 2008 elections. But members of the coalition see no alternative.

“It’s a basic principle that must stay — each race must have their party,” said Idris Haron, a member of Parliament for the governing party and, at 43 years old, the youngest member of its Supreme Council.

Yes, Malaysian society has changed from the time of independence from Britain in 1957, Mr. Idris said in an interview. But Malaysians need to be trained to re-embrace ethnic political segregation, he said.

“I believe the system will pattern the culture,” he said. He used the example of a factory that has trouble with tardy employees. “A punch card system will make workers come on time.”

At times the developments of recent weeks, the church burnings and divisive rhetoric, have been alarming to outsiders. But Malaysia is better than the headlines it generates. No one was hurt in the fires, and there remains no palpable tension in the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

“These disturbances came from a few politically linked people,” said Lawrence Andrew, a Catholic priest who is editor of The Herald, the newspaper banned from using Allah. “In that sense there is no real tension.”

The Allah issue and the Anwar trial are likely to remain political preoccupations for months to come.

“But there is a bigger problem at our doorstep, and that is the long-term survival of Malaysia in terms of its economic competitiveness,” said Mr. Khairy, the head of the governing party’s youth wing. “If we take our eyes off that we’re in trouble.”