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Wielding the Religious Sword in Malaysia


By Mohammad Ahmad

October 21, 2013    

Starting with Ahmadis, the heat has now started reaching the Christians in Malaysia, which, in time, will reach other faiths and doctrines as well

A Malaysian appeals court has ruled that non-Muslims cannot use the word Allah to refer to God, even in their own faiths, overturning a 2009 lower court ruling. In 2009, The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, was prohibited by the Malaysian government from using the word ‘Allah’ in its Malay-language edition to describe God. The newspaper took the matter to court, and a court ruled in its favour in December 2009. The government launched an appeal. The appeals court has now ruled that the term Allah must be exclusive to Islam or it could cause public disorder.

The sane can only wonder how referring to God by His personal name can cause disorder in a community when the Holy Quran makes this call to the Jews and Christians: “O People of the Book! Come to a word equal between us and you — that we worship none but Allah, and that we associate no partner with Him, and that some of us take not others for Lords beside Allah. But, if they turn away, then say, ‘Bear witness that we have submitted to God’” (3:64).

In Malaysia, people of all faiths use the word Allah in Malay to refer to their God. The Christians argue that they have used the word, which entered Malay from Arabic, to refer to God for centuries but the appeal court said, “The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity.” The court ruled that the constitutional rights of the publisher had not been infringed. Lawyers for the Catholic paper had argued that the word Allah predated Islam and had been used extensively by Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia’s part of Borneo for centuries. It gave no consideration to the fact that Malay-language Bibles have used Allah to refer to God since before Malaysia was formed. The Christians, who form around nine percent of the Malaysian population, have said that they will appeal. Churches in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak have said that they will continue to use the word regardless of the ruling. Obviously, with a sharpened tool in the hands of the extremists, this means trouble for Malaysia.

Christians in Indonesia and much of the Arab world continue to use the word Allah without any government opposition. Imagine the implications of such a ban if it were to happen in Lebanon with its around 40 percent Christian population, all of whom use the word Allah to describe God not only in their religious books but also in everyday conversation.

The ban in Malaysia, initially put in place by the ruling UNMO, was nothing but a deplorable opportunistic move to win extremist votes. It is nothing but bad politics and has little to do with religion. The Quran says: “Say thou call upon Allah or call upon Rahman, by whichsoever ye call, His are the excellent names. And shout not thy prayer, nor speak it low, but Seek between these a way” (17:110). Should it be implied that since all good names belong to Allah, they too stand copyrighted to Muslims? Obviously, this is not the intention of the Holy Book. The mayhem is created when religion, which is in essence cohesive, is misused as a divisive tool, and that is not the fault of religion but of those who cunningly do so for their vested interests.

There is an increasing rise in extremism in Malaysian society with growing influence of the clerics. Malay Muslims make up almost two-thirds of the country’s population. Rather than taking the extremists head on and upholding fundamental human rights, the governing Malay Muslim party has, over the years, taken the easier path and started wooing the extremist voters by increasingly playing the religion card in its race with the opposition Islamic party, PAS, led by Anwar Ibrahim, who was once the deputy prime minister of the country, and a darling of the UNMO. Ibrahim, who is said to have close connections with the Islamists in the neighbouring Indonesia, brought in Salafi influence into the Malaysian government, and appointments made in his tenure are now exerting their influence. Malaysian society was hitherto not acutely affected by extremism as the mainstream Malays ascribe to the Shafi school of thought, but its engagement with the Salafis is now having the hallmark Salafi effect on its society.

Pointers indicate that after the Christians the Shiites are also in for trouble. Malaysian newspapers in August reported these words from the Kedah Council of Regency Chairman Tan Sri Tunku Annuar Sultan Badlishah: “Except for Sunni, any religious teachings, which are against the Syarak (Islamic Law), must be prevented...The National Fatwa Council and also the state fatwa councils have rejected the Shiite sect, so the state government must be stern in curbing the spread of its teaching.” Coming from a Malaysian king in his royal address to the 13th State Assembly, these are indeed very ominous words.

Unless sense prevails and the Malaysian government stops taking sides in matters of religion, the country is on its way to capitulating to religious extremism. Unfortunately, it is following the footsteps of Pakistan on its way to religious polarisation. Starting with Ahmadis, the heat has now started reaching the Christians in Malaysia, which, in time, will reach other faiths and doctrines as well.

 In 1975, duplicating Pakistan, the Selangor Fatwa Council decreed that the Ahmadis were not Muslims, and recommended that their special Malay privileges be removed. In this latest ‘copyright’ episode too, it is following Pakistan, where the apex court, in a way, copyrighted the usage of certain terms to only the constitutional Muslims, while debarring Ahmadis from using them, though they formed a part of their proclaimed religious beliefs. Malaysia has forgotten that Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its flirtation with extremism and its society stands deeply fragmented. Terrorists find sympathisers in extremists and this fuels bloodshed. Pakistan’s potential to become an economic success story has been obliterated by the security situation of the country, and if Malaysia does not take remedial action, and its society starts fragmenting like Pakistan, it will see the fruits of its economic development wither away quickly. One can only hope sanity prevails there.