‘Allah’ By Any Other Name

The Wall Street Journal
14th January 2010

The government’s censorship has only compounded Malaysia’s troubles.


Religious violence is rare in Malaysia, and so its people are rightly alarmed at the current spate of attacks on churches, which can conjure up memories of the 1969 race riots. The government has strongly condemned the attacks, but its policy of trying to coddle its Muslim population undermines its stated goal of an open Islam and stokes the very religious tension that it wants desperately to avoid.

The violence is the latest consequence of attempts to ban the use of the word “Allah” by Christians. In 1986, the Interior Security Ministry barred the word from non-Islamic publications on the grounds that it could confuse Muslims, but the ordinance was usually not enforced. However in December 2007, the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association and the Islamic religious councils of seven states invoked it in a lawsuit against the Malay language weekly, the Catholic Herald. The government sided with the councils, saying that Christians’ use of the term “could increase tension and create confusion among Muslims.” Authorities also asked the Herald to put on its front page the word terhad, “restricted,” meaning solely for distribution to Christians.

Christians and others responded that “Allah” has been used by Christians for centuries to refer to God, including in Malaysia. No other country has such a ban; even the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) says it opposes one. “Allah,” the Arabic word for God, is used by Christians in Egypt and Syria, and, of course, neighboring Indonesia. On Dec. 31, 2009, the High Court ruled that Christians had a constitutional right to use “Allah.” The government called for calm, but quickly said it would appeal and, on January 6, the judge suspended her ruling pending an appeals court decision. Subsequently, nine churches have been attacked, most of them firebombed. There have also been attacks on the Catholic Herald’s legal team, whose offices were vandalized yesterday.

This is not the only federal government attempt to repress anything that could be perceived as deviating from the state-sanctioned version of Islam. In 2005, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi proposed that Malay-language bibles have “Not for Muslims” on the front. In 2003, the government banned publication of a Bible in Iban, an indigenous language, although the ban was later lifted. In March 2009, customs officials seized Christian books and other materials containing “Allah,” and now some 15,000 volumes have been impounded. Since Indonesian Christian books in Bahasa contain the word “Allah” they cannot be imported. The government has also rebuffed calls for a state interfaith advisory council.

The censorship is not restricted to non-Muslim material. Using guidelines issued by the Islamic Development Department and with the consent of the Shariah courts, the federal government has prohibited over 50 “deviant” interpretations of Islam, including Shiism, the faith of over 10% of the world’s Muslims. In 2007, the Internal Security Ministry banned 37 books, mostly by Muslims, after the Publications and Quranic Texts Control Division said they “twisted facts and true Islamic teachings.” In 2008, other books were banned, including “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism” by Norani Othman, published by the Malaysian Muslim women’s organization Sisters in Islam, and Amina Wadud’s “Quran and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective.”

The attempted ban on “Allah” is part of a larger government program to shield Malay Muslims from anything contrary to state Islam or that might upset or confuse them. One reason for this effort seems to be political maneuvering by the ruling party to shore up its Islamic credentials and hold onto Malay votes. But there is also genuine concern to prevent adverse Muslim reaction to different views.

However, religious tensions are increasing in Malaysia, and not only because of ethnic divides and electoral calculation. Much is tied to ongoing restrictions on conversion from Islam coupled with the writing bans themselves. These bans stoke expectations that Muslims should, or even can, be shielded from anything that might challenge their beliefs. In a global world and a modern Malaysia, this is impossible, and the resulting dashed expectations feed frustration and tension.

If the government believes, as its actions imply, that many Muslim Malays are ignorant about their faith and so are easily confused, then, rather than trying to restrict non-Muslims or different Muslims, it should call on Islamic teachers to do a better job. After all, Muslim civil servants are already required to take government-approved religion classes, and Islamic religious instruction is mandatory for Muslim children in public schools.

It should also use its persuasive powers to tell its citizens that, as members of a thriving society in a global world, their beliefs will inevitably be questioned and challenged. Malaysia’s talented population is capable of dealing with different thoughts and ideas, and does not need suffocating and self-defeating protection.

As Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian NGO of Muslim women committed to an open interpretation of Islam, says: “Ignorance is never bliss. By narrowing the space for open dialogue among citizens and squashing their quest for information and to read, the government’s 2008 banning of ‘Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism’ can be deemed as ‘promoting Jahiliah'”—the very state of religious conflict and confusion that Islam came to overcome. It would create a “suppressed world where we will blindly follow with no questions asked.”

Mr. Marshall is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington.

  1. #1 by monsterball on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 7:14 am

    Now Nazri said Christians in Sarawak and Sabah …including Melaka..can use the word… “Allah”…as UMNO knows…Malaysians are too smart to be frightened by their provocations.
    Naturally….they found out…it has been used for past 300 years.
    UMNO is so engrossed in trying to win Muslim votes….they keep on doing stupid things.
    Fortunately…no one was killed in the various burning incidents.
    I had supper with 7 young Muslim graduates….all are sick of UMNO.
    I am sure….UMNO will keep on loosing votes…no matter how good the may appear to be right now.
    Voters want CHANGE of GOVERNMENT….simple as that….and to feel all powerful as voters..no more yes man to an elected government..and especially…right now…PR is the indespensible alternative….approved by voters….in the 12th GE…and much much more are going to vote for PR..coming 13th GE….that is if Najib or UMNO..does not try any funny monkey tricks. DOES NOT TRY

  2. #2 by wanderer on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 8:53 am

    Poor ALLAH is made to do overtime by the Putra boys….UNNECESSARY.
    Allah has to use budget airlines to see to the needs of Christians in Sabah and Sarawak and muslims in West Malaysia. Who says, “Allah’s job is easy!”…at least not in Bolehland!!

  3. #3 by Godfather on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 9:02 am

    UMNO is desperately scared of its own shadow.

  4. #4 by boh-liao on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 9:58 am

    As MMK proudly declared some moons ago “I’M A RACIST” (a big fat 1 too)
    UMNO B is a RACIST party, n I am d ex-president of this racist party.
    A racist party led by someone who gladly gave up his ancestors’ race/roots 2 b more Malay than Malays
    What can we expect from this racist party?
    Logical thinking, fair treatment, peace n stability amg difft racial/religious grps?
    Wait 4 d day d sun rises in d West lah

  5. #5 by changeforum on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 10:58 am

    Well written, Mr. Paul Marshall

  6. #6 by a2a on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 11:57 am

    I suggested the gov should restricted the muslim to travel outside west malaysia so they get well protected and no confused.

    This will be the fully protection for them.


  7. #7 by old horse on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 12:04 pm

    PM Najib’s blueprint of a 1Malaysia must be implemented with fairness the soonest possible. To ensure effectiveness, PM’s office should create a section to invetigate impartially all queries from the rakyat and take action against abuses of powers by civil servants. Otherwise, the rakyat will continue to believe that 1M is nothing but empty slogan. This is will have a strong impact on the future of BN and UMNO. BN’s component partners like MCA, Gerakan, MIC and other small BN parties are already sitting on sharp edges. Once their weighst gave ways, there will be no powerful panacea for the cure.

  8. #8 by boh-liao on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 12:50 pm

    Nazi n d cabinet admitted dat Muslims in E M’sia more kuat than those in W M’sia
    Muslims in E M’sia can tahan n not confused by Allah = God, salute them
    Muslims in W M’sia tak boleh lah, crumble at d whisper of Allah = God
    Tsk tsk, kam yong sei loh ……

  9. #9 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 1:52 pm

    There is still a time bom ticking. Its clear Najib cannot survive beyond the 13th GE. The issue is can BN be topple at the 13th GE or will we see things go downhill so bad after that it will horify us and the world.

    Najib still has a window of opportunity to radically reverse the course of UMNO/BN but it will take very radical effort. Nothing short of the same as what Mahathir did went he coopted Anwar and this time UMNO/BN must do the same again. The best deal Najib can do is step aside and make a deal with Anwar for someone else to take over maybe even Nik Aziz. But he does not have the skills for such a radical move.

    So the only scenario that is that PR take over in 13th GE OR things will go down so bad after that democracy is suspended and we go into emergency rule with constitution suspended. There is no other possible scenario.

  10. #10 by frankyapp on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 3:04 pm

    Umno’s priority is Islam first,malays second and others third. Their program is to make malaysia an islamic state.Hence they classified muslim/malays as 1st class/superior citizen ,other muslims as 2nd class citizen and all non muslims as 3rd class citizen.Therefore most indians who embraced islam assimilated the malay race to make themselves muslim malay in order to enjoy the 1st class/supperior status.Other races such as chinese,kadazan/dusun/murut and dayak/iban though some of them have embraced islam but refused to assimilate the malay race ,hence remain as second class citizens.Umno indeed a racist party and its discrimination is clearly seen.For instant,the civil service consisted of 90 % malays/muslim,the NEP helps 85 % of the 1st class/supperior citizen and the balance is reluctantly distributed to the rest of the muslim/bumiputras.The vast majority of the chinese citizens who could not assimilate the malay race due to over five thousand years of civilisation have established a well footed foundation and remain as chinese,though some have embraced islam but failed.The chinese malaysian realised this,though being classified as 3rd class citizen and despite some time being labelled as ‘pandatang’ or immigrants,worked pretty smart and hard for survival. Most of the other ethnic groups especially those in the poor states of Sabah and Sarawak could not cop with the pressures ,therefore choose to remain in the kampong. These poor christian folks have suffered enconomical and political suppression and now have to suffer some more from not permitted to use the word ‘ALLAH’ in their churches and prayers.I think Umno racists’ islamic policy has gone too far with all these divide and rule regulations and should be stopped as the vast majority of the poor would become poorer and may become desperated.When they do the country would go head on to disunity and chaos.

  11. #11 by -ec- on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 5:16 pm

    “Malaysia’s talented population is capable of dealing with different thoughts and ideas, and does not need suffocating and self-defeating protection.”

    frankly, that is true. that is the different between 1969 and 2010. that is how this umno’s political gimmick does not work effectively this time. umno should regret that they did not start btn 40 years ago.

    yes, time has changed. the dirty trick that worked for the father may not work for the son anymore.

  12. #12 by tanjong8 on Saturday, 16 January 2010 - 5:20 pm

    UmnoUtusans is making use of the word Allah to try to cow the people.

    They just want to show that the people must be controlled by them and commanded by them.

    It is their political ploy to permanently hanging on to power. They have become power crazy and so intoxicated that they would not do nothing to perpetuate their grip of power.

    UmnoUtusans are beyond redemption!

    Shouldn’t the people throw them out come the next GE ?

  13. #13 by pwcheng on Monday, 18 January 2010 - 11:50 am

    UMNO is using religion to pull votes. They are obviously taking a dangerous path to remain in Putra Jaya. Staying in powers, everybody will want to but we have to be responsible.
    On the other hand PAS is standing on the right platform insofar as PAS politics is concerned. I think PAS has the right leaders where else UMNO do not seems so.

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