Malaysia: more on the ban of the word "Allah"

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jan 10 14:37:50 UTC 2008

Jan 10, 2008

Words of faith inflame Malaysia
By Baradan Kuppusasmy

KUALA LUMPUR - In a move that threatens to further inflame  already
mounting religious and ethnic tensions, the Malaysian government
announced that certain Arabic words such as "Allah" cannot be used in
the literature, gospel and speeches of non-Muslim faiths. Three other
commonly used words ordered excluded from non-Muslim lexicon are
"Baitullah" (House of God), "solat" (prayer) and "Kaabah" (sacred
house). The decision has sent shockwaves through the country's
Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities, which for centuries have
liberally borrowed Arabic words in their religious practices.

Many see the government decision as an infringement on their
constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms. While Malaysia's
charter says that Islam is the "religion of the federation" and that
other faiths are freely allowed, non-Muslims increasingly fear freedom
of worship is being curtailed by officials influenced by a resurgent
political Islam. "Only Muslims can use [the word] Allah. It's a Muslim
word. It's from the Arabic language. We cannot let other religions use
it because it will confuse people," deputy minister for internal
security Johari Baharum told the press in explaining the rationale for
the controversial decision. "We cannot allow this use of 'Allah' in
non-Muslim publications; nobody except Muslims [can use it]. The word
'Allah' is published by the Catholics. It's not right," he said.

But followers of Sikhism - which borrows heavily from both Islam and
Hinduism and also uses the word Allah to refer to god - are
particularly upset over the ban. "We have used the terms 'Allah' and
'Rahim' [most merciful] extensively in our writings and prayers to
refer to God. The word Allah is used in our holy scripture," Malaysian
Gurdwara Council chief Harcharan Singh told the media.
"Sikhs have used these terms for centuries and they are part of the
Punjabi language we still use today," he said, explaining the dilemma
for followers of the faith, who are distinguished by their turbans and
beards. "How are we going to fulfill our religious obligation if
commonly used words are reserved for Muslims - I really don't know
where we are heading as a nation with decisions like this," he said.

Compounding the confusion, church leaders have now filed a lawsuit
against Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and the government for banning
the import of Christian publications that contain the word Allah. The
suit has asked for a court ruling against any faith having exclusive
right to the use of any particular word. The case will be closely
watched by Malaysians and foreigners, including investors who fear
that the country is slowly sliding into a Taliban-style theocracy.
Although filed on December 10 by the Sidang Injil Borneo, the leading
church in Sabah on Borneo island, it is also supported by Malaysia's
estimated two million Christians. Malaysia's religious divide exploded
into the open after hundreds of thousands of Hindus demonstrated on
November 25 demanding a larger share of the national wealth and an end
to state-backed Hindu temple demolitions. Muslim fears that Christians
have ulterior motives in using Arabic words appear to be at the core
of the government move.

"There is fear that the use of Arabic words common to Muslims and
Christians aids proselytizing," said a Muslim cleric who asked not to
be identified. "Muslims have long feared Christian proselytizing and
the fear surfaced strongly after the Lina Joy case," the cleric added,
referring to the case of Malay woman Azalina Jailani who converted to
Christianity and was then subjected to a brutal legal battle that
ended last year with the highest federal court ruling that the
country's Muslims cannot legally leave their faith. Since then other
cases have flared up between Muslims and non-Muslims involving issues
such as religious conversion, division of property and claims over
dead bodies and the rites for their disposal. Neither the courts nor
the political establishment, fearful of a backlash from conservative
Muslims, have offered a just or lasting solution to the spiking

To quell Muslims' apprehensions, church leaders have explained that
disputed Arabic words are used only in Christian publications that are
exclusively used by non-Muslims and further that the words are used in
sermons inside churches. It is considered an offence to proselytize
among Muslims and punishment may include a fine or jail term.
Instances of Muslims converting to other religions are rare compared
with the some 7,000 non-Muslims who convert to Islam annually. In
addition, a large state-funded Muslim bureaucracy assists converts to
Islam, taking care of their welfare and helping them adjust
psychologically to their new faith.

Meanwhile, church leaders say the ban on the use of certain Arabic
words is hurting the country's international image as a moderate and
inclusive plural society. In a statement, the Christian Federation of
Malaysia expressed "deep disappointment and regret" at the
government's decision. "The words predate Islam and it is wrong to bar
others from using them in private worship and internal Christian
publications," said the federation's executive secretary, Reverend
Herman Shastri.

"We never preach to Muslims and they should not worry," he said,
rejecting the government's arguments for the policy. Ramon Navaratnam,
a leading secularist and head of the Center for Public Policy Studies,
said the policy was unconstitutional to ban certain religions from
using the words. "It is the constitutional right of Malaysian citizens
to profess their own religion and using the terminology and language
of their choice is part of that fundamental right," he said. Political
observers say political compulsions prompted the government to move
ahead with the ban, even though it is clearly unpopular with
non-Muslims minority groups. With general elections around the corner,
they said, the government is appeasing the conservative Muslim
majority to win political support at a time Abdullah's popularity is

(Inter Press Service)

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list