Nile Bowie | January 09, 2014 13:46
Religious authorities have boldly confiscated hundreds of Malay language bibles over their use of the word ‘Allah’, a signal that the Malaysian government is backpedaling on its highly flaunted program of moderation and inclusivity.
Malaysia has garnered much international attention in recent years for being the only country in the world to regulate the use of the word ‘Allah’ and other terms deemed to be exclusive to Islam among its non-Muslim citizens.
The term ‘Allah’ is borrowed from Arabic and is used to describe ‘God’ in the language used by the nation’s dominant Malay ethnic group, who practice a brand of Islam that is deeply interwoven with Malay nationalism. Malaysia’s Christian minority has used the term ‘Allah’ in Malay language bibles and daily prayers in churches to refer to the Christian god for centuries, but a controversial court ruling in 2013 prohibited a Catholic newspaper, The Herald, from using the word. Despite the prohibition of the term applying only to The Herald and not to other publications, religious authorities recently took the unprecedented step of raiding a Bible Society and confiscating over 300 Malay language bibles on the basis that public disorder would ensue unless the term ‘Allah’ remains exclusive to Islam.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has put much emphasis on his ‘1Malaysia’ slogan in an attempt to showcase Malaysia’s brand of political Islam as being moderate, inclusive, and capable of sustaining harmony among the country’s complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious landscape. However, the inherent contradictions of the leadership’s official message of moderation and co-existence have become increasingly more apparent as many Islamic jurists, who have adopted exclusivist positions on sensitive inter-faith issues, have been handed sizeable authority by the ruling establishment to influence policy.
The issue may appear to outside observers as a trivial row over religious semantics, but this controversy has proven capable of enflaming tensions between the Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnic groups, and has even provoked communal violence in the past.
An ‘ethnic-quake’ in the making?
Though many commentators accuse the government of intentionally intimidating minority groups, the religious authorities’ widening reach over the affairs of non-Muslims has more to do with the ruling coalition’s increasing unpopularity in the polls, and the government’s inability to mediate communal squabbles, which stems from a lack of leadership at the top of the political structure.
Lim Guan Eng, a key opposition figure, has accused the government of deliberately heightening tension between people of different faiths to distract the masses from the economic bite being caused by price hikes, as the ruling coalition significantly reduces long-held subsides on sugar, petrol and electricity. More precisely, the ruling coalition – which suffered one of its worst performances in history during last year’s general elections – is wholly dependent on securing its voter base among the Malay community by means of safeguarding Malay national identity, which requires that the ruling party uphold and defend the sanctity of Islam.
In trying to broaden its Islamic credentials, it has had to compete with PAS – the main opposition Islamist party, which has led to the government’s brand of political Islam becoming more conservative and increasingly pandering to the fringes.
A far-reaching religious authority that undermines non-Muslims’ constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion is not so much the intention of government policy as it is a consequence of the ruling coalition playing the Malay voter base. Religious anxieties have become more prominent in recent times, even within the Islamic community itself.
Despite being an overwhelmingly Sunni nation, Malaysian muftis have played up the ‘threat’ of Shiites propagating their brand of Islam in the country to strengthen cohesion among Malays. Another case involved religious authorities successfully pressuring a Muslim Singaporean to demolish his privately owned surau (a Muslim prayer space), after he allowed a group of Buddhist monks to meditate in the space. Given how race and religion are so intimately connected in Malaysia, the increasing propagation of exclusivist policies by the Islamic authorities is a recipe for communal unrest.
Tensions simmer in Malaysia’s melting pot
Muslim Malays see ‘Allah’ as an exclusive religious symbol and fear that its use by other religions will undermine Islam and make the community more vulnerable to being converted by missionary oriented Christians. This rationale of vulnerability stems from a complex history of Malays being colonially subjugated and economically subdued by Chinese and Indian communities following independence.
Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus also cherish their constitutionally protected rights to practice their own faiths and culture freely. Rather than letting courts and religious authorities enforce decisions on contentious inter-faith issues, the government should have taken more steps to educate the various communities involved in the historical backstory of the term ‘Allah’, which has pre-Quranic and pre-Abrahamic origins. Arab-speaking Christians have used the term freely for centuries.
Rather than enforcing sweeping and impractical prohibitions on a term, gentler and wiser council could have been used to ensure various communities that the term would not be misused.
In a country with a complicated ethnic and religious landscape like Malaysia, the state should actively facilitate inter-faith dialogue initiatives, but various religious authorities oppose such programs on the basis that Islam is the constitutionally protected state-religion, and should not be associated on a level playing field with other faiths.
It has also become clear that religious figureheads and muftis in Malaysia have become steadily more influenced by the hardline brand of Islam practiced in the GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia, which have always donated generously to Malaysia’s Islamic missionaries and may be partially responsible for eroding the less-conservative interpretation of Islam that the country was known for decades ago.
UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, has called on Malaysia to reverse its decision on ‘Allah’, while minority communities and opposition parties demand guarantees that illegal and unconstitutional raids will no longer be permitted.
Rather than taking measures to strengthen national unity and reconciliation, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyidin Yassin recently condoned protests by Muslim groups to demonstrate outside churches that defy the ‘Allah’ ban on Sundays. If Malaysia’s ruling party continues to preach moderation to international audiences and foreign investors while pursuing exclusivist positions at home, the inconsistencies of their message will eventually catch up with them in the polls and on the streets.
Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached on Twitter or at [email protected]