[lg policy] In Malaysia, Uproar Grows Over Use of Word ‘Allah’

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jan 10 18:11:33 UTC 2010


January 11, 2010
In Malaysia, Uproar Grows Over Use of Word ‘Allah’

BANGKOK — An uproar among Muslims in Malaysia over the use of the word
Allah by Christians spread over the weekend with the firebombing and
vandalizing of several churches, increasing tensions at a time of
political turbulence. Arsonists struck three churches and a convent
school early Sunday and splashed black paint on another church. This
followed the firebombing of four churches on Friday and Saturday. No
injuries were reported, and only one of the churches, Metro Tabernacle
in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, suffered extensive damage. The attacks,
unlike anything Malaysia has seen before, have shaken a country where
many Muslims are angry over a Dec. 31 court ruling that overturned a
government ban on the use of the word Allah to denote the Christian

Though that usage is common in many countries, where Arabic- and
Malay-language Bibles describe Jesus as the “son of Allah,” many
Muslims here insist that the word belongs exclusively to them and say
that its use by other faiths could confuse Muslim worshipers. That
dispute in turn was described by some observers as a sign of political
maneuvering as the governing party struggles to maintain its dominance
following its worst setbacks in national and state elections last
March. Some political analysts and politicians accuse Prime Minister
Najib Razak of raising racial and religious issues as he attempts to
solidify his Malay base. In a difficult balancing act, he must also
win back Chinese and Indian voters whose opposition contributed to his
party’s setback last year.

“The political contestation is a lot more intensified,” said Elizabeth
Wong, a state official who is a member of the opposition Parti
Keadilan Rakyat. “In Malaysia the central theme will always be about
the Malay identity and about Islam. The parties come up with various
policies or means to attempt to appeal to the Muslim Malay voters.”
In an interview, the main opposition figure, Anwar Ibrahim, implied
that the government was behind the current tensions. “This is the last
hope — to incite racial and religious sentiments to cling to power,”
he said. “Immediately since the disastrous defeat in the March 2008
election they have been fanning this.”  The government has appealed
the December court decision and has been granted a stay, and the
dispute has swelled into a nationwide confrontation, with small
demonstrations at mosques and passionate outcries on the Internet.
More than 180,000 people have joined a Facebook group called
“Protesting the use of the name Allah by non-Muslims.”

The tensions are shaking a multiethnic, multiracial state that has
attempted to maintain harmony among its citizens: mostly Muslim Malays
who make up 60 percent of the population, and minority Chinese and
Indians, who mostly practice Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
About 9 percent of Malaysia’s population of 28 million people are
Christian, most of them Chinese or Indian. Analysts say this is the
first outright confrontation between Muslims and Christians. But race
has become a staple of political discourse in recent years, and
religion has been its vehicle, said Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at the
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“Religion has become a much more useful tool for parties who depend on
playing on ethnic divisions,” said Mr. Ooi. “They find it difficult to
talk about racial issues but possible to talk about religious issues.
We are seeing the result of that political opportunism over the last
two decades.”  The line between race and religion is blurred in a
country where the Constitution equates Muslim and Malay identities,
said Jacqueline Ann Surin, editor of The Nut Graph, an analytical
Malaysian news site that covers political Islam extensively.

“Malaysia is peculiar in that we have race-based politics and over the
past decade or so we have seen an escalation of this notion that Malay
Malaysians are superior,” she said. “That has been most apparent from
consistent attempts by the U.M.N.O. leadership to promote the notion
of ‘ketuanan Melayu,’ or Malay supremacy or dominance.” The United
Malays National Organization is the full name of the governing party.
“So it’s a logical progression that if the Malay is considered
superior by the state to all others in Malaysia, then Islam will also
be deemed superior to other religions,” she said.

In a widely quoted speech last Thursday, Razaleigh Hamzah, a former
finance minister, said the governing party, founded on a formula of
communal power sharing, “had ossified into what appeared to be an
eternal racial contract, a model replicated at every level of national
life.”  He called the March election “a watershed in Malaysian
politics” as the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition lost its dominating
two-thirds majority in Parliament and lost five states to the
opposition.  “The entire political landscape changed overnight,” Mr.
Hamzah said, and left the formerly invincible Malay-based party
seeking to redefine its electoral base and its political rationale.

The political uncertainty comes against the backdrop of a flagging
economy in a country that once had ambitions to lead the burgeoning
economies of Southeast Asia. In a speech in December, the second
finance minister, Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah, said, “Our economy has been
stagnating in the last decade. We have lost our competitive edge to
remain as the leader of the pack in many sectors of the economy. Our
private investment has been steadily in decline.”  He called for
changes in an economic system that gives preferential treatment to
Malays, saying all Malaysians should be given “equal opportunity to
participate in the economy.”

At the same time, the country has seen a rise in political Islam along
with continuing ethnic and religious tensions. Hindus have protested
the destruction of some temples, and Muslims paraded a severed cow’s
head in the streets last November to protest the construction of a new
one. On New Year’s Day, the Islamic morality police arrested 52
unmarried couples in budget hotels — mainly students and young factory
workers — who were expected to be charged with the offense of close
proximity. Earlier last year, a Muslim woman was sentenced to a public
caning for drinking beer in a hotel. The sentence has not yet been
carried out, with the authorities saying they have not found a female
trained to carry out a caning.

In this atmosphere, there is a danger that the current furor over
religious language will feed on itself, said Marina Mahathir, the
daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who is a
newspaper columnist and social activist. “It’s only a few people who
are inflamed about it, while the rest of the country is going on as if
normal,” she said in an interview. “But if you keep stoking and if you
keep giving these people leeway, sooner or later more and more people
will think, ‘Oh, maybe we should be upset as well.”’



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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