From the May/June, 2010 issue of Touchstone

Entitled to God by Peter Riddell

Entitled to God

Copyrighting “Allah” in Malaysia Stirs Strife

by Peter Riddell

Most Westerners assume that Allah is the name used for God in Islam. Indeed it is, but Muslims are not the only ones to use it.

Allah was used for one of the deities, probably the supreme deity, in pre-Islamic Arabia some 1,500 years ago. In today’s Arab world, Allah is the standard term for God among Arabic-speaking Christians of different denominations. The Catholic Maltese, whose language is related to Arabic, refer to God as Alla. In Indonesia, Allah is commonly used by Christians; the 1974 New Translation of the Bible in Indonesian renders the Old Testament Hebrew terms for God with Allah. These usages occur in their different locations without objection from local Muslims.

It might be expected, therefore, that, in Malaysia, when the High Court ruled on December 31, 2009, that Catholics were allowed to use Allah to describe the Christian God in the national language, the decision would be met without controversy. However, it quickly whipped up a storm among Malaysia’s Muslim population. Within days, there were street protests against the ruling, and attempts were made to hack into the online version of the Catholic weekly Herald, which had petitioned the High Court for permission to use Allah in its Malay-language edition. A campaign against the ruling on the social networking website Facebook attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. And a coalition of 27 Muslim organizations petitioned the nine Malay sultans, each the head of Islam in his respective state, to help overturn the verdict.

Most significantly, a string of churches of various denominations, a convent school, and a Sikh temple were firebombed in Malaysia in the wake of the ruling. In an apparent backlash, pig heads were found on the grounds of two mosques near Kuala Lumpur, an act of desecration because Muslims consider pigs to be unclean.

Background of the Controversy

The issue has deep roots. The worldwide resurgence in Islamic consciousness since the 1970s had a profound impact on Malaysian Muslims, especially during the Prime Ministership of Mahathir Mohamad (1981–2003). As one aspect of the goal to purify Islamic practice, the government of Dr. Mahathir sought to protect certain religious terms considered to be the preserve of Islam.

On December 5, 1986, four terms—Allah, Baitullah (house of God/worship), Solat (prayer), and Kaabah (direction of prayer)—were gazetted as exclusive to Muslims under a Malaysian government circular. Allah has proven to be the main sticking point. In 1988, the Non-Islamic Religions Enactment affirmed the restriction on non-Muslim use, either verbally or in print, of the term Allah, with this ban reaffirmed by the Cabinet on October 18 and November 1, 2006.

The Malaysian and Indonesian national languages are related dialects, much like American and British English, so Indonesian books regularly circulate in Malaysia. In June 1993, authorities temporarily withheld a shipment of almost 1,500 imported Indonesian-language Christian books, claiming they included the “forbidden” words. Four years later, 230 Christian books imported into Malaysia from Singapore and Indonesia were similarly confiscated.

The challenge against the ban on non-Muslim use of Allah was led by the Malaysian Catholic newspaper, the Herald, which from time to time used Allah in its Malaysian-language edition. The editor, Fr. Lawrence Andrew, argued that the case concerned religious and cultural freedom for all of Malaysia’s minorities, not simply the use of one term. The simmering dispute heated up in 2007 when the Home Ministry invoked the 1986 Cabinet directive in temporarily refusing to renew the publication permit of the Herald.

Matters came to a head in 2008. On January 3 of that year, the Malaysian Cabinet reaffirmed the restriction against non-Muslim use of “Allah.” In May, the Catholic Church brought the matter before the High Court for judicial review.

Divided Malays

Anyone attempting to understand the issues underlying this dispute must consider Malaysia’s multi-religious society. Its population of 27 million people is majority Muslim (60 percent), with the substantial non-Muslim minority including Buddhists (19 percent), Christians (9 percent) and Hindus (6 percent). Religion is closely intertwined with ethnicity. The dominant Malay ethnic group considers itself Muslim by definition (a fact recognized by the Constitution). The ethnic Chinese tend to be largely folk Buddhist or Christian, while the Indians follow Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or Sikhism.

Current Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib has been seeking to build unity among the country’s diverse ethnic groups by promoting the slogan “One Malaysia.” But many indigenous Malays feel insecure among the sizeable ethnic minorities, whose presence is traceable to colonial-era immigration.

Most ethnic Malays agree on the need for unity among themselves to shore up their position of primacy in the nation. But they have been bitterly divided since independence (1957) between two main political groups: the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which mainly represents urban, educated, and professional Malays; and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), which represents rural, conservative Malays, who mainly pursue traditional occupations.

UMNO, the lead partner in the ruling national coalition, has long dominated PAS, but the 2008 elections produced a shock: The governing majority was reduced to holding 63 percent of parliamentary seats—down from 90 percent in 2004—and there was a surge in support for a new opposition alliance, consisting of PAS, the People’s Justice Party, and the secularist Democratic Action Party.

The 2008 elections revealed Malay political allegiances as being in a state of flux. The opposition alliance is posing a real challenge to the UMNO-dominated coalition for the first time since independence. Seeing the Allah debate as one way of connecting with the more conservative PAS constituency, Prime Minister Najib quickly stated that the Home Ministry would appeal against the High Court’s ruling. But in doing so Najib risked alienating Malaysia’s minorities and threatening his own “One Malaysia” slogan.

Unexpected Support

Paradoxically, the dispute has at one level affirmed Christian-Muslim cooperation. The arson attacks on churches were widely condemned, with Abdul Hadi Awang, the president of PAS, describing them as “un-Islamic,” because “Islam respects the rights of others to practise their own religion [and] have their own places of worship, including churches.” Prime Minister Najib announced a government allocation of 500,000 Malaysian dollars to rebuild the Metro Tabernacle, the church most damaged in the attacks.

Some Muslims disassociated themselves not only from the attacks on churches but also from the ban on non-Muslim use of Allah. In a stinging critique of government policy, Ustaz Maszlee Malik and Dr. Musa Mohd Nordin warned that the dispute “brought up the dark side within us,” and they asserted that Muslim secularists, religious zealots, and Muslim NGOs joined together to “form a lethal concoction of religious intolerance.”

Ida Bakar, a Muslim contributor to an online chat forum, noted that the Allah debate was a non-issue in other Muslim countries: “Arabs—Christian and Muslims—are probably laughing their head-gears off at the sheer stupidity. I am cringing with utter embarrassment.”

Nevertheless, the determination of many activist Muslims is still clearly evident. Mohd Aizam Masod, spokesman for the Islamic Development Department, argued somewhat loosely that Christian use of Allah would confuse Muslims: “Imagine if Jesus Christ, which under the Unitarian concept is considered as God to the Christians, be called Allah, wouldn’t it be confusing? Allah is by definition a description of a singular Muslim God, but non-Muslims’ usage will pluralize it.”

A Crisis Point

Conciliation is underway. The government won a stay of the High Court ruling, a request supported by the Roman Catholic Church of Malaysia in recognition of “national interests.” Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muyhiddin Yassin stated in an interview that negotiations are taking place between Muslim and Christian leaders to solve the dispute, adding that “behind closed doors [the issue] can be solved with respect and courtesy.”

Nevertheless, this clearly represents a crisis point in Christian-Muslim relations in Malaysia. The attacks on Christian persons and property are partly the fruit of a virtual policy of increasing delineation (some say apartheid) between Muslims and non-Muslims. If Prime Minister Najib is serious about his “One Malaysia” slogan, he and his administration must consider the extent to which bans on “forbidden terms” only serve to worsen sectarian tensions in Malaysia’s multicultural and multi-religious society.

Peter Riddell is Senior Fellow with Kairos Journal and serves as Professorial Dean of the BCV Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths of the Australian College of Theology in Melbourne, Australia.

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