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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Rewinding The 'A' Word
The 'A' Word
By 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.
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.
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.Read more.