Are you a Catholic, Protestant, Sikh, Taoist, or Buddhist living in or visiting Malaysia? Watch it. You are not to use the word “Allah” referring to God, that country’s highest court said in a 4-3 decision this week. Only Muslims may do that under the law.
Suppose you’re Catholic, Protestant, Sikh, Taoist, or Buddhist just touring, or even living in, the state of Sarawak, the population of which, according to the 2010 head count, is 44 percent Christians, 30 percent Muslims, and the rest from other faiths. You may address God as “our Father” who causes “his sun to rise on the good and the evil and rain to fall on the just and unjust.”
The edict applies only to the Catholic weekly Herald, Kuala Lumpur said after the decision was issued. Since 2007, the Herald had been ordered to cease using “Allah” on grounds of “national security and public order.” Malaysian Christians may use “Allah” in church. Herald editor Fr. Lawrence Andrew sued, saying: “We have a responsibility to uphold religious freedom.”
“Conflicting interpretations of the ban only added confusion to a debate that inflamed religious tensions,” wrote The Associated Press’ Eileen Ng. Ethnic Malays form two-thirds of Malaysia’s population. Chinese and Indians number 22 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Christians number about 9 percent.
This ruling “shows how fast religious tolerance is falling in Malaysia,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted. “Government should work to promote freedom of religion rather than politically exploit religious wedge issues.”
Indeed, the ban appears “politically motivated,” writes William Case at the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Asian and International Studies. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s party failed to win a majority in the last election. He’s strapped to recapture support of the country’s ethnic Malay, and mostly Muslim, community.
“It’s too soon to tell how government will implement the ban,” Case adds. The judiciary may say one thing, the Cabinet another. “That would lead to further attacks on churches as Malaysia has become more polarized on ethnic, and increasingly religious, grounds. However, verbal threats against religious groups in Malaysia seldom translate into the kind of violence seen elsewhere…”
The decision doesn’t stipulate the penalty for violating the ban. But it appears that a newspaper using the term would lose its publishing license. Whatever, Christians will continue to use “Allah” in bibles and during church gatherings, said the Christian Federation of Malaysia chair, Rev. Eu Hong Seng, as they did even before Malaysia split from Singapore.
In January, authorities confiscated 300 bibles in Selangor state. In late 2009, it impounded 15,100 bibles imported from Indonesia. Two Bible Society officials were investigated for breaking a state law that bans non-Muslims from using the word “Allah,” BBC reported.
As of 2012, at least 17 nations (9 percent worldwide) have police that enforce religious norms, according to a new analysis of data, says the Pew Research Center. “In Malaysia, state Islamic religious enforcement officers and police carried out raids to enforce the Sharia law against indecent dress. [They] banned publications, alcohol consumption and khalwat (close proximity to a member of the opposite sex),” according to the US State Department.
Religious intolerance spawns even body snatching, blogs Mariam Mokhtar, who heads the Perak Liberation Organisation. “The most prominent [victim] is former chief justice Mohamed Suffian Hashim. A Cambridge scholar, he married Buny, a British Christian. She wanted to be cremated. But before services at the Cheras crematorium, religious officials took [the body] to Kuala Kangsar for burial according to Muslim rites.”
Mokhtar cites similar body-snatching cases, including that of 74-year-old Gan Eng Gor.
Malaysia is “an ethnically polarized society,” the New York Times’ Thomas Fuller noted earlier. “Talent often does not rise to the top of government because of patronage politics within the ruling party dominated, until now, by the United National Malays Organization.
“A system of ethnic preferences blocks minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, from government service. Ethnic Malays corner nearly all top government positions and receive a host of government preferences.”
The local press is muzzled by licensing laws. “There has always been a kind of wait-for-instructions-from-the-top attitude.” Authoritarian laws help keep an ascendant opposition in check, as the opposition’s Anwar Ibrahim found in recycled sodomy charges. “The government is accustomed to getting its way. When you are not challenged in any meaningful way, you get complacent.”
Late March, a once-unthinkable interfaith meeting gathered in Kuala Lumpur, after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. The imam cupped his palms to invoke Allah for the 239 passengers and crew. “The prayer was not unusual,” wrote the AP’s Eileen Ng. But the setting was a Damansara Perdana shopping mall.
“Today is a rare occasion for us to bring unity and harmony,” prayed a Buddhist monk. “We are all in tears waiting for you,” said Shantha Venugopal, the Hindu representative. The Taoist priest beseeched for divine intervention, while the Sikh leader pleaded for closure. A Catholic read from the bible.
The rites “would have been inconceivable” before March 8 in a country “where religious bigotry is often openly displayed,” the AP reported.
Tali lega lembar tak suang-sunang putus, a Malay proverb says. A rope of three strands takes some breaking. Alas, it unwound too soon.