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." Read more.