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