[lg policy] Allah and the Malay language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 20 14:26:00 UTC 2010

Allah and the Malay language
19 Jan 10 : 8.00AM
By Wong Chin Huat
editor at thenutgraph.com

IF the church were to agree to the ban of the word "Allah" for
non-Muslims, would this solve our problems? The answer is no.
Religious authorities in the West Malaysian states have banned more
than the word "Allah". In Pahang and Malacca, the word "nabi"
(prophet) is banned, making it impossible to have the Bible or Torah
translated into Malay. In fact, the word "Injil" (Bible) is banned in
10 states, including Pahang and Selangor. The issue here is clearly
not theological, whether "Allah" in the Christian sense is same with
"Allah" as Muslims understand it. Instead, the issue is highly
political: Can the Malay language be used in the religious realm by
any faith or belief system other than Islam?

Md Asham Ahmad, a fellow at the Centre for Syariah, Law and Political
Studies, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim), expressed
the apprehension of Malaysian Muslims: "Clearly what the Christians
are trying to do is to deislamise the Malay language for missionary
purposes." "Deislamisation" here means allowing the Malay language to
be used by everyone, and not exclusively by Muslims alone.
Underscoring this is the attempt by the Islamic authorities to define
Islam and Muslims as being exclusive.

This could explain why the Indonesian-language edition of Charles
Darwin's On the Origin of Species is banned in Malaysia, while the
English original is freely available. I cannot think of any other
explanation why only Malay-speaking Malaysians need to be protected
from the bad influence of the evolutionists. Now, imagine if a
Buddhist or Hindu canon was translated into Malay, or if an
Indonesian-language text of such canons was imported from Java or
Bali. Would the Buddhist or Hindu communities then be accused of
attempting to proselytise Muslims?


The logic here is simple:

 The Malay language is spoken by Malay Malaysians;

 Malay Malaysians are by constitutional definition Muslim;

 The Malay language therefore belongs to Muslims and should not be deislamised.

With apologies to the doctrines of the Catholic and Protestant
churches, this is a trinity of Malay ethnicity, the Malay language,
and Islam.

This is why "Allah" is not at all an issue in Indonesia, the world's
most populous Muslim country, which practises the same form of Islam
prevalent in Malaysia: the Shafie school of jurisprudence in Sunni
Islam. In Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia is not a language owned
exclusively by Muslims. But Asham then asks: "If [the Christians] say
it is their right to do mission to the Malay [Malaysians] ... then
shouldn't we, the Malays, also claim our right to repel any effort to
undermine our religious and cultural identity?"

Good question. If the Malay language is exclusively for Muslims, I
suppose Malaysian Muslims do have such a right, even if this amounts
to "religious protectionism". Either that, or the Malay language is so
central to the faith of Malaysian Muslims — more so than Arabic for
Middle-Eastern Muslims or Hebrew for Jews.  But then, two questions
arise. Firstly, as Malaysian Muslims are increasingly multilingual,
should "the right to repel any effort to undermine [Muslims']
religious and cultural identity" be gradually extended to cover other
languages, too? For instance, should the original English edition of
On the Origin of Species be banned to protect Muslims from confusion
and erosion of their faith? What about Dante's anti-Islam classic, The
Divine Comedy?

Then there is the more urgent question: Is a mono-faith Malay language
tenable as the national language? In other words, if only
Islam-compatible concepts are allowed in the Malay language, such that
one can only learn about Islam and not other religious or atheist
thoughts though the language, why should Malaysian non-Muslims learn
Malay? Why not exclude non-Muslim students from Malay-language classes
just as they are from Islamic studies? If the Malay language is
supposed to be the Muslim language on faith-related matters, is the
promotion of it as the national language an unspoken long-term
proselytising plan? Does this explain the commonplace complaint about
Islamisation in Malay-medium national schools?

Interestingly, the use of Malay in East Malaysia was an issue in the
20-point agreement upon the formation of Malaysia. Therefore, the
usage of "Allah" might not have become so widespread in Malaysian
Borneo had the National Language Policy not been so successful there.

Tension within the constitution?

What this controversy now shows is the tension between a narrowly
interpreted Article 3 (Islam as the religion of the federation) and
Article 152 (Malay as the national language) of the Federal
Constitution. At a discursive level, the "Allah" controversy is simply
an internal contradiction of Umno's ideology: Malay supremacy
(ketuanan Melayu). This ideology of Umno's ethno-nationalism is built
on a trinity of religious ethno-nationalism (Muslim interests),
linguistic nationalism (the Malay language), and economic
ethno-nationalism (special status of bumiputera in Article 153).
However, one must be careful not to conclude that a person who follows
any or all of these strands of nationalism is automatically an Umno

What can be concluded is that Umno's political expediency to drum up
what has been called Islamo-tribalism is not only undoing Malaysia's
reputation as a moderate Muslim country, but also undoing the national
language project. The debate on Allah should therefore be shifted from
theology and semantics to nationhood and politics. The direct
stakeholders here are not only Malay-speaking Malaysian Christians,
from among native East Malaysians and West Malaysian Orang Asli, but
also the standard bearers of Malay linguistic nationalism.

So, what are the positions of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and the
Federation of Malay Writers Associations on this matter? What is the
position of single-stream education proponents such as Prof Emeritus
Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim? Have they given up on the necessity of an
inclusive national language, or have they agreed all this while that
the national language should be for Muslims only?

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