Wall Street Journal
Jan 14, 2014
Malaysia tries to stop Christians using the Bahasa word for God.
For nearly 200 years non-Muslim residents of present-day Malaysia used the Arabic and Bahasa word “Allah” to refer to God. Seven years ago, the government began an unnecessary and provocative push to ban them from doing so in print. Now Malaysian police are accusing a Catholic priest of sedition after he announced that churches in the state of Selangor would continue using the A word in their local-language services.
At the heart of the dispute is prominent Catholic priest Lawrence Andrew. In 2007, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar banned Father Lawrence Andrew’s church newspaper from printing “Allah.” Father Andrew fought the ban in the courts and eventually lost in the Court of Appeal last October. In November, the sultan of Selangor took the campaign a step further and extended the ban to Bahasa-language Bibles and churches. Now Father Andrew is being investigated for violating the edict under the draconian Sedition Act.
Meantime, the dispute has galvanized extremist groups. Last week, in an unprecedented raid on a Christian organization, Islamic authorities in Selangor seized 320 Bibles from the Malaysian Bible Society and detained two Society leaders. Members of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have intimidated moderate Muslims and threatened violence against churches that dare continue using “Allah” in services.
Such threats are irresponsible anywhere but particularly so in multiethnic Malaysia, where similar tensions have boiled over in the past. In 2010, after a High Court briefly reversed the ban on “Allah,” mobs attacked churches, temples and even a convent school.
UMNO is fanning religious tensions for political gain. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has defended anti-Christian protesters in Selangor, saying “what they are doing is carrying out the Sultan’s decree. They are not doing anything against the law.” Prime Minister Najib Razak also weighed in on the side of the Allah crackdown.
Touting such views is a convenient way for UMNO to steer public discourse away from corruption and clean elections. These concerns helped the opposition coalition win the popular vote last year for the first time since independence. Even the Islamist wing of the opposition, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), has focused on good governance rather than using the Allah controversy to score political points. It insists that minority religions’ use of “Allah” is their constitutional right.
UMNO has previously sought to curry favor with its Malay-Muslim base by flaunting its Islamist credentials. But that strategy may no longer appeal to the country’s increasingly urban electorate. According to a recent poll by the independent Merdeka Center, the drop in UMNO’s overall public approval to 38% from 50% in June 2013 was steepest among ethnic Malays. Only 52% of the Malay majority approve of the government, down from 67% in August.
Malaysia’s leaders would be wise to note this shift and drop the investigation of Father Andrew. Depriving religious minorities of their rights isn’t in the long-term interest of Malaysia or UMNO.