A Hundred Names

by Juan L. Mercado

Muslims in mosques from Quiapo to Cotabato call Divinity as “Allah”.  In Cebu Daily News, an imam writes a weekly column on his faith.  Liberty of faith and speech are constitutionally-buttressed rights here.  Muslims form five percent of the population, Catholics 83 percent and Iglesia ni Kristro 2.3 percent.

In next door Malaysia, “Allah means God — unless you’re a Christian” notes Time magazine. Or Sikh, Hindu or atheist. Only Muslims may invoke “Allah” says a new court decision. Yet,four years back, KL courts ruled that “Allah” transcended different faiths.

Why this flipflop?  “Islam (is) vulnerable to conversion efforts by other faiths.” the decision says. Allah was “not an integral part…in Christianity”.

No? Herald editor Fr. Lawrence Andrew, will appeal.  Non-Muslim Malaysians were livid. “Appalling,” snapped Jagir Singh of the Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism. Sabah and Sarawak churches, where Christians are a majority, protested. Bahasa speaking Christians used “Allah”  even before formation of Malaysia. They’ll continue to invoke “Allah” and use “Al-Kitab” — the  Bahasa bible, allowed by  Malaysia’s Parliament in 2011. 

These rekindled 2007’s uproar when government confiscated 15,100  bibles.  Printed in Indonesia, the text used “Allah”.  The High Court however shredded that ban, in December 2009. And non-Muslim places of worship, including Sikh temples, were ransacked.

In Geneva, the 17th UN Commission on Human Rights, last week,  grilled Malaysia. This  “Universal Periodic Review. was second for Malaysia since 2009.  Austria  and others prodded KL allow freedom to practice, even change religions. Keep your pledge to abolish the 1948 Sedition Act  and Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, the US urged Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. These laws leash media thru permits.

“The fear is Muslims will start practising Christianity if both groups refer to God by the same name” Waleed Aly wrote in Sydney Morning Herald. Do Malaysian Muslims need a form of protection from their own ignorance?

“Young, educated, urban Malays in particular, are deserting this brand of politics in droves. They’re becoming increasingly skeptical of their own privileged status. upwardly mobile,they are  unlikely to be swayed by a Mecca-oriented compass. “

Not the “old guard Malays. (Yet) they confront the fact that the privileged position they’ve held for the first 50 years of Malaysian independence  won’t hold for the next 50. Now they’re lashing  to resist  death throes of their supremacy”

“That “supremacy” remains law for now.”Islam is religion of the federation but other religions may be practised in peace”. Malasyia’s Constitution says. Malaysia signed  the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 18 undergirds “freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”

Are ethnic Malays exempted? They make up two-thirds of the country’s 28 million people. Chinese and Indians number 22 percent  and  7 percent  respectively. About  9 percent are Christian.

Religious intolerance can trigger strife, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned “Public debate cannot be on whose religion is right and whose is wrong,” but on  rational considerations of public interest.

Indonesia has  the world’s largest Muslim population (205 million) or 13 percent of the world’s Muslims. But “no one, who believes in the power of one supreme God can claim exclusivity”, warned Endy Bayuni, Jakarta Post senior editor. “There is no such thing as the God for Catholics or Allah for Muslims.”

“Indonesia and Malaysia may rightfully claim to have developed a more moderate strand of Islam. But there’s a thin line dividing tolerance and intolerance. So we should not take this moderation for granted…”

The claim to a monopoly on “Allah” is absurd, wrote opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim in Wall Street Journal. “Arabic’s sister Semitic languages” used similar words for the Deity, namely ‘Elaha’ in Aramaic and ‘Elohim’ in Hebrew. “Historical manuscripts prove Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews collectively prayed to God as Allah for over 1,400 years.”

“Go into any church in the Middle East and you will hear: “Quddusan Allah, Quddusan al-Qawi” (“Holy God, Holy and Strong…”), the Economist notes. “They’ve been doing so for centuries.”

Kuala Lumpur’s ruling party and United National Malays Organization welcomed the court straitjacket. “This is to appease extremist supporters after  the party scraped thru with a thin majority,” wrote Parliamentarian Mujahid Yusof Rawa. The parties play the “radical and religious car” to woo votes. 

“Move to another country” suggested spokesperson Abdullah Zaik Rahman to those who disagreed with the Court. You “no longer accept supremacy of Islam”.

No, former law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim told Malay Mail.  “We should instead get (these hardliners) to move over to Saudi Arabia. There, sovereignty of Islam is not questioned. We have become a nation we were not”.

The “beginning of wisdom is to call all things by their right names,” an Asian proverb teaches. “God Of A Hundred Names” is the title of a book on prayers of various faiths culled from  the world’s  major faiths. They all revere the Divinity’s names.

Jews would not address God directly. Muslims have 95 other names for Allah. And many where scandalized when Jesus taught his disciples: “Say Our Father…”Abba”. Tatay. Dad. Ama.

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