The ‘A’ Word


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.

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‘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.

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.

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