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Islamic bigotry grips Malaysia: Indian impact on the region downplayed

By Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Unreconciled to its ancient Hindu lineage and still groping for a valid Islamic identity, Malaysia is in the throes of yet another sectarian conflict, this Time with Christians over who owns Allah.

Many Muslims (more than 60 per cent of the 29 million population) insist he is their exclusive property. Christians, a mere eight per cent, as well as more liberal Muslims recognise Allah as the Arabic word for god that was in use before Prophet Mohammed and the birth of Islam. The Catholics of Sabah and Sarawak (both in what was known as Borneo) referred to their Christian god as Allah long before they joined the Malay Federation in 1963 (like Chinese-majority Singapore) to form Malaysia. No one objected.

The argument did not begin until a few years ago as part of an Islamic revival that reinforced the Malaysian quest for a distinctive identity. But it was not until January 2009 that Mr Hamid Albar, then Home Minister, ordered the Catholic weekly, Herald, which is published in English, Malay, Tamil and Chinese, not to call the Christian god Allah in its Malay edition. The reason was that such use would confuse simple Muslims and by blurring the distinction between the two religions, encourage them to convert to Christianity.

The charge seemed a little far-fetched since the Herald is distributed only in church after weekend Mass, which means to those who are already Christian. The editor, Father Lawrence Andrew, strongly denies any conversion campaign. Archbishop Murphy Packiam, head of the Catholic Church, filed for judicial review of the order in February last year and was rewarded on the last day of 2009 when Kuala Lumpur High Court’s Judge Lau Bee Lan — a Chinese from his name, not a Malay Muslim — ruled that Article 10 of the federal Constitution gave the Herald the “constitutional right” to call god Allah. However, when Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak intervened, the court issued a stay order.

Militant Muslims have been mustering their forces since then. More than 12,000 people promptly joined an Internet Facebook group titled Menentang Penggunaan Allah Oleh Golongan Bukan Islam (Opposition to Non-Muslims using the word Allah) with Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, whose father, Mr Mahathir Mohammad, was Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, vociferously supporting the campaign. But not all Muslims are with him. Some acknowledge the right of those who believe in the Old Testament to use the word. Others take a universal view. “All of mankind, regardless of their religion, should say that Allah created the world, that Allah tells us to do good,” says Mr Asri Zainul Abidin, a respected Islamic scholar and former Mufti of Perlis State. “It is not appropriate for a Muslim to protest when he hears non-Muslims say such things.”

The most curious aspect of this heated debate is not that it has divided Muslims but that the two main political groups have switched sides. The fundamentalist Parti Islam SeMalaysia which formerly ruled Kelantan State and argued at one time that chopsticks were un-Islamic now maintains that Allah is no religion’s exclusive property. The party president, Mr Hadi Awang, a conservative cleric, issued a written statement after a recent three-hour conclave with his peers to say that “based on Islamic principles, the use of the word ‘Allah’ by the people of the Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism, is acceptable.”

But fearing erosion of its political support, the ruling United Malays National Organisation seems to have stolen the PAS’s fundamentalist clothes. Traditionally, the UMNO prides itself on its liberal approach to matters concerning race and religion. It is in partnership with Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian political organisations. But roles have changed. “PAS is holding on to the more plural and moderate position while UMNO is digging itself into an intolerant hardline position that has no parallel that I know of in the Muslim world,” a veteran UMNO dissident, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a prince of Kelantan State, declared at a Singapore meeting the other day.

It’s not as if the Malaysians have suddenly discovered religion. Islam has always been a force and the Westernised Mohammedali Currimbhoy Chagla describes in his autobiography how he had to make excuses to avoid having to accompany Tengku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, to the mosque for Friday prayers when he visited Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s as Mrs Indira Gandhi’s External Affairs Minister.

But Malaysians were then a carefree people who enjoyed contrasting their relaxed attitude to life with the stern Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s disapproval of long hair and chewing gum in Singapore. Now, however, Malaysia is becoming a land of rigid taboos. The crime of ‘khalwat’ (unmarried men and women caught in ‘close proximity’), the decision to cane a woman for drinking beer in public, and recent attacks on Christian churches testify to a creeping fundamentalism.

If Mr Mahathir’s son represents the new drift towards bigotry, his daughter, Ms Marina Mahathir, speaks for the opposite camp with some understanding of the national psyche. “A confident Muslim will not walk into a church, hear a liturgy in Malay or Arabic where they use the word ‘Allah’ and think he or she is in a mosque,” she wrote in her blog. “A confident Muslim knows the difference.”

Confidence is in short supply. Many attributed Mr Mahathir’s complexes to the part-Indian parentage that was never publicly mentioned. Tiny Singapore’s prosperity is like a constant pinprick. But as I discovered when researching my book on South-East Asia, Malaysia’s insecurity goes much deeper, partly explaining why the federation expelled secular Singapore in 1965.

Describing the fourth century Hindu deities found in the Bujang Valley, Malaysia’s richest architectural site, Anthony Spaeth wrote in Time that “the official literature does its best to downplay, even denigrate, the Indian impact on the region”. Spaeth thought “an Indian Malaysian visiting the Bujang Valley might come away feeling demeaned rather than proud — and that would be no accident”.

About 40 per cent of Malay words, including the all-important ‘bumiputera’ (son of the soil), the political concept that sustains Malaysian nationalism, are borrowed from Sanskrit. The nine Malay sultans who take turns to be king are descended from Indian royalty. Their rituals are recognisably Brahmanic.

It could explain why Hindu temples and Indian Malaysians are targeted for attack. Malaysia is trying to erase its past.


Source: The Pioneer, New Delhi

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    Fair statement made by the author. Very rare to see this type of open statements from even this forum including the moderator.
    By satwa gunam 06/10/2012 01:33:11
  2. 'But I told you so' say asks, "look back on the arab spring. is egypt any closer to a secular democracy?"

    You mean compared to the Mubarak dictatorship? You figure it out yourself.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin 05/10/2012 22:22:05
  3. me ghulam mohiyuddin should now look back on the arab spring. is egypt any closer to a secular democracy? is tunisia any closer to a secular democracy? most of the secular despots will simply be replaced by the religious despots.

    iran was the test case for democracy in islamic countries. is iran in anyway a secular democracy? while we all can discuss and debate and conclude that islam is totally compatible with democracy why is it that on the ground there is no such example?

    new york times with its covert leftist bias has been a traditional friend of the islamists. it is bound to white wash the defects of islamism and pretend that everything is ok. just see how chavez of venezuela is going out of his way to bolster ahmadinejad. leftists are thie first to support the islamists.

    the debates on islam either here in this forum or anywhere for that matter are always laced with an undercurrent of fear of treading on some very sensitive toes. the same is with the new york times debate. the freedom to analyze, criticize and debate is the bedrock of democracy.

    do muslims have this freedom to analyze, criticize and debate islam? until they do they cannot aspire to any democratic polity.
    By I told you so 05/10/2012 21:06:27
  4. "By I told you so", read the six brief pieces in the following link:

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin 05/10/2012 12:16:44
  5. mr ghulam mohiyuddin would like to separate the state and religion.
    but the islamic authorities past as well as present have consistently ruled that man made laws are shirk/blasphemy/apostasy/crime against allah/whatever. they have also ridiculed nationalism/patriotism as being unislamic.
    it is perhaps a little late in the day to pine for separation of state and church.
    but there is another insidious aspect if islam wants to separate state and church. does it mean that a muslim majority state per se is despotic/intolerant/violent?
    another thing. let us assume that in such a hypothetical muslim majority state, a constitution mandates the separation of state and church. even then is it not possible for an islamic party to come to power and then change this very constitution?
    it would incense many on this forum if i suggested that there is inherently something the matter with the whole of islamic theology as well as jurisprudence that precludes equality, tolerance and rule of secular law.
    if not why is not there a single such state - either in the past or the present. please do not bring in the so called 'golden period of islam'. this imaginary golden period has never been free of bloodthirsty murders, palace intrigues, and bloody conquests.
    in fact the only engine that powered the economics of this so called golden period is the war booty and the ensuing slave trade. even jizya was not enough to sustain the war hounds of these kingdoms. so much so, some of the conquerers even limited the da'wa so as to ensure a steady supply of jizya from the dhimmies. during the early periods of islamic conquests, jizya was collected from the non arab converts which led to revolts that had to be put down by the sword.
    apart from the above why i wanted mr ghulam mohiyuddin to read and re read this article is that i faced a lot of flac from this gentleman when i suggested that islamism is inevitable in muslim majority countries.
    though i am no big fan of javed anand or his wife, can anyone point out a parallel couple in any muslim majority country? now given all this why blame others of islamophobia? after all no one wants to get his head chopped off or wants to swing by his neck from a jib crane.
    By I told you so 05/10/2012 05:08:24