April 23, 2010
The “Allah” Debate – from 11th Jan 2010
“Allah” Debate: Dealing with False Insecurities
11th Jan 2010 (Published in Malaysiakini here)
News of the recent series of attacks against churches across Malaysia has sent shockwaves to all. Although there have been tensions in the past few years between different religious groups, few imagined that these could ever descend into violence such as the kind experienced recently. Within three days, there were arson attacks on at least eight churches in various locations throughout the country (in Klang Valley, Perak, Melaka, Sarawak and Seremban), in which the Metro Tabernacle church had its ground floor (its administrative office) entirely destroyed.
Although police investigations are ongoing, many speculate that the attacks were linked to a controversial court ruling on the 31st December 2009, effectively allowing the Catholic newsletter The Herald to use “Allah” in reference to God in its Malay edition. “Allah” has been used for God amongst the Malay-speaking East Malaysian Christians for centuries, but problems only arose in 2007 when the Home Ministry threatened not to renew The Herald’s publishing licence. Some have insinuated that it was only after the newsletter began carrying critical pieces against the government that the clampdown began.
The court ruling has stirred uneasiness amongst certain sections of the Muslim community, and this has been aggravated by regular racist and inflammatory articles in a mainstream newspaper Utusan Malaysia. These groups say it loud and clear that “Allah is for Muslims only”. It is therefore important to identify the various fears and insecurities involved in this highly emotional issue.
Perhaps it should be stated upfront that the primary reason for which some Muslims in Malaysia demand exclusive rights to “Allah” is they fear that others, mainly Christians, will propagate other religions to them. The oft-quoted claim is that non-Muslims are wont to use the term to “misguide, mislead and confuse”, and thereafter to convince Muslims to abjure Islam.
First, whilst it is true that one of the tenets of the Christian faith is to spread itself, the Federal Constitution makes it illegal for any non-Muslim to proselytise to Muslims. Hence, should there be evidence for such incidents taking place, the Constitution exists to protect Muslims’ rights against such actions should they wish to prosecute.
However, the recent court ruling has nothing to do with proselytising or religious conversion. The issue, to be clear, involves the constitutional human right to one’s language. Article 11 of the Federal Constitution states that every person has the right to profess and practise his religion. The East Malaysian Christians have known no term other than the disputed “Allah” in their worship of God. To require them to adopt another term is in fact sacrilege. Using the term is a fundamental part of their very “practice of the religion” as promised to them.
Second, if indeed the reason for the Catholic Church insisting on the use of “Allah” to refer to God is one of a natural human right, then it is necessary for them to state this unreservedly. Statements have in fact been issued, declaring that their use of “Allah” has absolutely no intention of misleading Muslims. Perhaps this is a message worth repeating, to assuage the obviously palpable fears. This is an important move in ensuring the harmony amongst all religions.
Some have argued that the Muslim God is entirely different from the Christian God, and indeed religious scholars have debated this with vastly varying thoughts on the subject. However, it must be reiterated that the present case is not so much a theological issue as it is one of defending a community’s right to practise its faith, in its natural language of use.
Third, even if Christian publications in Malay using “Allah” happen to be picked up and read randomly by a Muslim individual, this does not mean he or she will automatically convert into Christianity. Followers of any religion surely ought to be more secure in their faith, such that exposure to other religious teachings would not so easily erode their beliefs. We live in a global world, and one in which technology allows any Muslim to Google, say, “Allah used by Middle East Christians”.
This then brings one to the question of dialogue and discussion. Religious communities in any multifaith environment will always have different opinions. This holds true in Malaysia, as it does in other cosmopolitan countries. What is imperative, however, is for such potentially explosive issues to be resolved in a rational and calm manner. Civilised exchanges, such as the kind the Malaysian government propagates internationally but never locally, ought to be encouraged and promoted by official bodies.
At this stage, however, my faith lies in the budding of informal groups. Stories I have heard in the past week in teary outrage at the violence perpetrated at churches include this: Three ustads from a mosque visiting the neighbouring church to say that the Christian worshippers need not worry for their safety. Other beautiful stories are being written, that reflect firm friendships between Muslims and Christians, many decades old.
Small discussion groups between those of all faiths are emerging within communities and civil society, and perhaps it is only through these real friendships that there can be any sign of hope for Malaysia. Disputes will always remain, but it is the systematic and genuine manner of dealing with them that speaks of a society’s maturity. Let not the minds of many be clouded by the actions of a few, nor by the occasional hypocrisy of political parties. If love, grace, forgiveness and mercy truly do lie at the very core of all religions, then this is the best time for their followers to demonstrate it.