Features | Society | Southeast Asia

The ‘A’ Word

Malaysia’s has carefully crafted an image as a multi-cultural home for the world’s races and religions. But this picture of harmony is being challenged from all sides–by the government, in the courts and from the pulpit. Luke Hunt travels across the country to report on why.

Luke Hunt

When three mosques were desecrated with pig heads last month, the violent row over the use of the word ‘Allah’ appeared to have escalated to a new and unwanted level.

Police immediately linked the January 27 incident to earlier attacks on 11 Christian churches and a Sikh temple that followed a New Year’s Eve court ruling–now being appealed by the government–that overturned a government-imposed ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims.

Sitting at the centre of this legal fight is Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Catholic weekly newspaper The Herald.

‘We can say this was done by someone who was out to create trouble,’ says Father Andrew, although he adds that as the investigations are still ongoing it is difficult for him to go into details. ‘Who that someone is, people can guess.’

Perhaps crucially, the bloodied remains of the pigs that were scattered around the mosques at Taman Dato Harun, Al Imam al Timizi and Sri Sentosa were left in plastic bags. Unlike Christians, many Muslims believe they should not even touch pigs directly, prompting widespread speculation that Muslims bent on inflaming tensions were responsible and not Christians looking for revenge.

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Whoever is to blame, the reprisals are threatening on many levels, in particular to Malaysia’s image abroad, which has been built largely on a catchphrase used to sell the country around the world—‘Malaysia Truly Asia’.

Indeed, the images of multiculturalism the jingle is designed to conjure up are given life on the streets of Bukit Bintang, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Here, Malays, Chinese, and Indians mix easily with tourists and expatriates from Africa, the Middle East and the West. Muslims mingle with Christians. Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs are plentiful.

And it is here that Father Andrew, an urbane man of the cloth who divides his time between journalism and the spiritual needs of his flock, is speaking from his office behind St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. He wears the same smile that he did when meeting the late Pope John Paul II–a moment captured in a photo that hangs on the wall behind his desk stands as testament.

However, Father Andrew’s patience has–along with the vast majority of Malaysians, regardless of creed–been sorely tested by the spate of fire-bombings that erupted in early January after the courts overturned the government’s three-year bid to ban non-Muslims from using the word Allah.

‘It’s unfortunate, it’s irresponsible and there’s no respect for the rights and property of others,’ he says of the attacks. ‘They should approach the proper channels and not flex their muscles on the people. It is becoming the law of the jungle right now and they should stop this.’

Lording the Law

Most were delighted by the latest legal victory. The Home Ministry, though, was irritated and hard line Islamic elements enraged.

Allah was not the only word banned. Use of ‘Kaabah’ for Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca, ‘Solat,’ meaning prayer and ‘Baitullah’ or ‘House of God,’ were also written off for non-Muslims under the literary amendments. The ban was imposed on The Herald when its annual publishing license was renewed amid claims use of the words could lead to confusion and unintended conversions among members of the Islamic faith. This, apparently, poses a threat to national security.

But Father Andrew has remained confident over the court challenges. The ban and the reasoning behind it, he says, defy logic. He says the word Allah has remained part and parcel of religious teachings within Christian churches around the world. It was introduced to the Malay Peninsula and Borneo about 370 years ago by Arabic traders when no other word for God existed here.

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This held particular ramifications for Malay-speaking indigenous tribes living in Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo, who are among the main readers of The Herald’s Malay-language edition. Catholic officials say Allah is still the only word they know for God and the government has just bowed to this, announcing an exemption to the ban for the two East Malaysian states.

‘We’ve been using this word for centuries. It’s not a new word. It’s not something we have just thought about. So that’s why we say that it’s not so much a question of language here,’ Father Andrew says, producing a Dutch-Malay-Latin dictionary published in 1631 that uses the word Allah for God.

‘It’s also a cultural heritage of our Christian people that has been challenged by prohibiting us from using the word Allah,’ he says. ‘There’s no precedent about us trying to manipulate or cheat people.’

He adds that fundamentalists within and close to government who claim the word could be used by Christians to induce conversions are simply wrong.

‘I don’t see how we are a force against the government. No, we are corroborating with the government. But there are some elements in the government and some zealots outside who think we are trying to convert, and that we are certainly not.’

Father Andrew says that although it’s against the law for any religion to interfere with the internal affairs of another, Muslim groups consistently and actively attempt to convert believers of other faiths.

‘There have been Malays who came to me and said “Father I want to become a Christian–baptize me.” And my answer to them is: “No way, we will not baptize you. You know the law of the country. We cannot convert you.”

‘Now this law of the country has been in existence for 50 years, and it is part of the constitution and we wouldn’t want to go against this constitution.’

About 60 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people are Malay Muslims, while the rest are ethnic Chinese, Indians and indigenous tribes. The minorities follow Christianity, Hinduism and other religions.

Malaysia has kept racial tensions under control since race riots hit the country in the late 1960s. However, in the past few years, minorities have increasingly complained of government discrimination and argued that their constitutional right to practice religion freely has come under threat. They say that the nation’s Sharia court, which rules on family matters for Muslims, is unfair to them.

Further disputes in recent years have involved the demolition of Hindu temples illegally built on state-owned land and the seizing of Malay-language bibles.

The government denies any discrimination, and in a bid ensure peace, police have urged Muslims not to take part in planned street demonstrations. Meanwhile, protests by Christians in Sabah were called off because of fears of a government crackdown and claims that police were being dispatched in force.

Ronnie Klassen, a spokesman for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Sabah, was an organizer of the planned protest. He said there were genuine fears for the safety of the demonstrators.

‘We decided to call it off because of the two to three hundred people that were there, there were many elderly people around and we felt that we didn’t want any one of the elderly people to be injured or anything of that sort.’

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Arrests have been made and prosecutors have charged three Muslim men with fire-bombing a church in Kuala Lumpur. But police have also complained that witnesses were not coming forward. Instead, they were reporting their accounts on blogs and social networking websites like Facebook.

This isn’t what Tan Kong Beng, Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, had in mind when he recently said Malaysian Christians were expecting change in Malaysia.

‘They want to see a better Malaysia for their children and that means better relationships among the various religions, specifically with Islam,’ he says.

Politically Speaking

Father Andrew says Muslim elements within government were trying to bolster their religious influence and political support base by attempting to assert Islam over the diverse ethnic and religious mix that makes up Malaysia.

‘We can call them zealots,’ he says. ‘But I think we have to take a step back.’

The United Malay National Organization (UMNO), which has controlled political life in Malaysia since independence, has suffered a reduced majority in parliament and waning public support. Some observers have suggested elements within the party were aiming to appease hard line Islamic demands in the northern states of Peninsula Malaysia in return for votes at the next election, and by increasingly linking the Malay race with Islam.

Amid all this, former Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir has weighed in, claiming Malaysia’s image should not be tarnished by the Allah issue and adding that it was wrong to cast a bad light on Malaysia as other countries have been criticised for their stance on religious issues.

He singled out Switzerland, which does not allow minarets on mosques, and France, which restricts Muslim women wearing the veil or ‘tudung.’

‘No country’s image is immune from criticism and Malaysia is no exception as evidenced by the bad press it is getting over the “Allah” issue,’ Mahathir told reporters recently.

Father Andrew said such issues never existed before 1980–shortly before Mahathir would begin his 22-year run as prime minister–but since then, a political battle has emerged between UMNO and the pan-Islamic party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) with each trying to trump the other’s Islamic credentials.

That political battle, Father Andrew says, ‘was there to establish that someone is more Malay, more Muslim, than the other.’

‘In order to strengthen your own identity and establish your own niche and stake in this place you have to create a kind of uniqueness about you and this uniqueness can only come about if we can now say it is Islamic to the race. We are Malays because we are Muslim and we are a kind of pure breed.’

Across Malaysia non-Muslims are being urged to turn the other cheek–not to retaliate in the wake of the fire-bombings and attacks on their shrines.

They are obliging so far, but the frustrations remain. The survival of Malaysia’s carefully sculpted and cherished image as a secular state–a place where multitudes of races and creeds can live and play under a truly Asian umbrella– is far from certain.