Language and politics: Malaysia’s monopoly on Allah

What in the name of…

Over the course of the past week, nine churches in Malaysia have been firebombed by Muslim extremists who object to the Christian community’s use of the word “Allah” in their prayers. The dispute came to a head on December 31st when the high court of Malaysia ruled in favor of Catholics using the word in the Malay edition of their weekly newspaper.

What’s particularly perplexing about this is that the Islamist political party PAS actually supports the right of Christians to invoke Allah by name, whereas the ruling political coalition UMNO is pushing for Allah to be reserved for Muslims only. This is essentially a classic case of an incumbent political party, after suffering significant setbacks at the polls, invoking religion as a base-rallying prop and exploiting and stoking religious tensions for pure political gain – reminicent of the Ayodhya issue in India whose repercussions on undermining religious tolerance continue to this day. The irony of a moderate party out-Islaming the Islamists is not lost on UMNO party veterans, like Tengku Razaleigh, who are aghast and speaking out at the naked cynicism of their party:

The ‘Allah’ controversy has produced a ‘milestone moment’ in Malaysian politics, as ruling party Umno took a stance more extreme than even Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), said Umno party veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah yesterday.

‘PAS is holding onto 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,’ he said.

Tengku Razaleigh’s strongly worded speech was delivered at the luncheon address at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Regional Outlook Forum in Singapore. In it, he highlighted the reversal of roles for Umno and PAS through their reactions to the ‘Allah’ controversy.

Umno had for years claimed to be the voice of moderate Malays, while PAS more often made the news for wanting to impose strict Islamic laws.

The UMNO leadership is appealing to Malysian royalty for support of their stance. PAS, for its part, invokes classic Islamic doctrine in supporting the use of Allah by Christians, as per their status as People of the Book in the Qur’an itself:

“PAS would like to state 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,” said Hadi in a written statement which was read out by Information Chief Idris Ahmad.

“However, the word Allah must not be misused or abused so as not to affect racial and religious harmony in the country,” he added.

Hadi also urged all parties not to politicise the matter for political mileage.

“PAS strongly objects to any aggressive and provocative approach that can lead to tension in society,” he added.

The UMNO position forbidding Allah to non-muslims is indeed nonsensical (and cynical) – the Qur’an itself is quite clear on the matter:

And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our Allah and your Allah is One, and to Him do we submit. [29:46]

Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve. [2:62]

Had God not driven back the people, some by the means of others, there had been destroyed cloisters and churches, oratories and mosques, wherein God’s Name is much mentioned. [22:40]

The UMNO’s response? The Home Ministry secretary-general Mahmood Adam made the utterly incomprehensible assertion that “Malays are different from (Muslims in) other countries.”

It should be noted that despite the utter incoherence from the UMNO, Malays in general seem loath to allow religion to be used as a wedge factor. There are various student groups that are acting as shills for the UMNO party line, but Muslim NGOs are offering their help to the Christian community in protecting churches from further attacks:

Muslim groups in Malaysia are offering their help to prevent any further attacks on Christian places of worship amid a spree of attacks on churches in the multi-ethnic, Muslim-majority Asian country, The Star reported on Sunday, January 10.

“This is an offer of peace and goodwill,” Nadzim Johan, the executive secretary of the Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM), told a news conference.

“We don’t want our Christian brothers to be in danger.”

PPIM is one of 130 Muslim NGOs that vowed to become the “eyes and ears” of the government to shield churches against attacks.

It seems clear that the naked motive of the UMNO, and its abuse of Islam for political gain, is going to cost them dearly in the next election. In that regard, their entire cynical embrace of religious intolerance has backfired. Far from bringing PAS supporters to them, they have pushed moderate Malays away, and it’s the PAS and other Islamist opposition groups that will benefit. It should be noted that UMNO has been playing this card for decades. While the response from PAS is encouraging, a legislative arms race between UMNO and Islamist opposition parties to out-Sharia each other bodes ill indeed for Malaysia’s future.

Aziz Poonawalla writes the City of Brass blog at Beliefnet, where this article was previously featured. His other major Islamsphere projects include the group weblog Talk Islam and the annual Brass Crescent Awards. Aziz currently resides near Madison, WI with his wife and children.


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