Power Struggle in Malaysia

The “Allah” crisis is masking a nuanced and historic racial debate in Malaysian politics.

A U.S. church recently entered the debate over the exclusivity of the word “Allah” to Malay- Muslims. The letter from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) expressed solace to the Christian minority: “It is with great sadness that we continue to witness the burden you bear in the controversy in Malaysia.” The “Allah” crisis has been transformed from a nominal domestic issue into an international entrance exam; testing whether the Muslim state deserves its moderate insignia. As events continue to unfold and Western media becomes ever more intrigued, the way in which Barisan Nasional (the ruling party) treats its non-Muslim citizens will have lasting affects on foreign investment in this resource rich country.

Controversy arose over the use of “Allah” by non-Muslim Malaysians in 2007 when The Herald, a Roman Catholic publication, was officially ordered to stop using the Islamic reference in its publications. After two years of exhaustive legislative debate, The High Court of Kuala Lumpur concluded the ban was unconstitutional, resulting in violence against the Church. That ruling, however, was overturned in October 2013 and is now being sternly enforced. In January, 321 Bibles were seized from the Bible Society of Malaysia for unauthorized use of the word. In Bahasa Melayu (the official language of Malaysia) “Allah” literally translates to “God.” Malaysian Islamic authorities claim the word pertains only to Muslims and that non-Muslims are proselytizing the Malay majority. Christians, Hindus and Buddhists must now use the English translation in a public context.

According to the seminal A History of God by Karen Armstrong, Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same Creator. Before the formation of these relatively modern religions, man’s interpretation of God was far more spiritual. “A literal account of creation was impossible, since nobody had been present at these unimaginable events: myth and symbol were the only suitable way of describing them…these strange myths never entirely disappeared, but would reenter the history of God at a much later date, clothed in a monotheistic idiom.” The idiom materialized in Abraham, whom—the three monotheistic faiths agree—was the first to bridge humanity with God. Surprisingly though, theology is rarely discussed in relation to the current crisis in Malaysia.

Clearly, few are analyzing facts. The “Allah” issue is masking a far more nuanced debate over who should hold political supremacy. The BN, who has been in power for 57 years, needs to pay heed to the insecurities of its Malay devotees, while easing minority tensions. There is no easy solution, but the country will go in one of two directions: fall into a pit of race riots or transcend an issue that will undoubtedly hinder economic goals. To continue down the path of progress and development, Malaysia will need to find a secular solution.

Karam Singh Sethi spent 2013 teaching English in rural Malaysia on a Fulbright Scholarship.