Using His Name in Vain

October 18, 2013

Malaysia's Court of Appeal on Monday upheld the government's ban on Roman Catholics using the Arabic word "Allah" for God in their publication the Herald. With this ruling, the court and government are leading the Malay community into a closed world of ignorance and prejudice.

Christians throughout the Arab and Iranian worlds, like the millions of Christians in Indonesia, have always used the Arabic word for God. This is natural as the word means The One, referring to the one God in which both Muslims and Christians believe.

Both religions derive from the same Semitic source and would claim to worship the same God, although their beliefs about the nature and designs of that God can differ significantly. But so arrogant has the government of Malaysia become in its attempt to bolster its Islamic credentials and sagging popularity within the Malay community that it demanded that Christians use the word "tuhan," which translates into English as "Lord," as though it were a different God.

The case had been brought by the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur as publisher of the Herald, a paper written in English, Chinese and Tamil as well as Malay. The Herald can apply to appeal to the Federal Court, but it remains to be seen whether that court would accept a further hearing of the case, let alone reverse the verdict.

The case not only concerns the significant numbers of Indian and Chinese Christians in peninsular Malaysia but the large numbers of indigenous Christians in Sabah and Sarawak. These states, where Christians account for around 40% of the population, often chafe at decisions made in Kuala Lumpur.

The case throws into question the legality of the Christian bibles in Malay (published in Indonesia) which also use "Allah." Will the government courts order a mammoth book-burning of "Al Kitab" (the Book), as the Bible (an English word derived from the Greek word for book) is known in Malay and Arabic?

In July, comments on the use of "Allah" by the Vatican envoy to Malaysia, Joseph Marino, led the Foreign Ministry to summon him. A minister in the Prime Minister's department criticized the archbishop for allegedly hurting Malaysian unity. Stronger attacks came from Perkasa, an organization that is an extreme promoter of special rights for Malays.

Archbishop Marino is no naive stirrer of religious animosities. Previously he served as envoy to Bangladesh and has a reputation for fostering inter-faith dialogue. But in Malaysia the government has muddied the religious water by mixing Malay ethnic exclusivity issues with Islam, a universalist creed opposed to linking religion to ethnicity.

That the word was subject to a court decision is in itself a vivid illustration of the Malaysian government's attempts to set itself up as the font of authority on both Islam and the Malay language. It is bad enough that all Malays in Malaysia are legally deemed to be Muslims despite the peninsula's non-Muslim past. This contrasts with Indonesia, where ethnicity and religion are viewed as separate issues. Worse, the ruling United Malay National Organization, reliant on racial preferences to maintain its power, is using religion as an additional cover.

Prime Minister Najib Razak is a well-meaning man who would probably like this issue to go away. He remains more popular than his party, according to polls and election results. But his government responds not to the electorate but to extremist pressure groups within UMNO. These seek to blame electoral failure -- the coalition the party leads has been losing popularity in successive elections -- not on UMNO corruption and abuse of power but on not doing enough to advance Malay privileges.

The "Allah" issue is not the only one where the government has been at pains not to confront Perkasa, an organization of more extreme ethnic views than the UMNO mainstream. Mr. Najib has given way to demands for the further enhancement of Malay advantages in education and the economy. Hopes that the ruling coalition's electoral setback in May would lead to more open government have also been dashed.

With these lurches away from religious tolerance, a non-racial educational system and open competition between all ethnic groups, Malaysia's chances of reaching its goal of becoming a developed nation by 2020 are fast receding. Private capital is flowing out of Malaysia and will continue to do so as long as Prime Minister Najib's good intentions are trumped by UMNO's greed and religious posturing.

In practice, Malaysia marginalizes Malays internationally in two ways. First by making them appear incapable of standing on their own feet without help from the minority communities. Second by inventing issues, like the use of "Allah," which have no standing in the wider Muslim world.





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