June 7, 2008
POLITICS AND RELIGION
For the love of God, stop grandstanding
By John Bradley
A RECENT effort in Malaysia to ban non-Muslims from using 'Allah' as a synonym for 'God', on the pretext that it could 'confuse' the country's Muslim majority, has dealt another blow to the country's reputation for pluralism.
The Herald, a Roman Catholic newspaper, last month cleared the first hurdle in its legal bid to contest the government's decision not to renew its licence unless its Malaysian-language edition ceased to use the word 'Allah'.
In the midst of the controversy, a senior official from Malaysia's Internal Security Ministry said: 'Christians cannot use the word Allah. It is only applicable to Muslims. Allah is only for the Muslim God.'
The statement is contentious on a number of levels. For a start, 'Allah' is an Arabic word used for centuries by Arab Christians as a synonym for 'God', even before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed.
The Malay translation of the bible, in which the word Allah appears, has been used by Christians since the church's earliest days.
More worrying is that the statement paradoxically echoes those of numerous anti-Muslim bigots in the West which portray Muslims as worshipping a God 'different' from that worshipped by Christians and Jews, reinforcing fears that Islam poses a threat to Judeo-Christian values and civilisation.
Remember Lieutenant-General William 'Jerry' Boykin? He was named US deputy undersecretary of defence for intelligence in 2003.
In 2005, while recounting a military battle he had fought against Muslims in Somalia, he declared: 'I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.'
When politics, culture and religion are entwined, ignorance usually triumphs. The political motivation for Lt-Gen Boykin's outburst was the US-led 'war on terror', especially as he was addressing a key Bush administration power base: evangelical Christians.
Similarly, Father Andrew Lawrence, editor of The Herald, told the BBC that 'politics and a general election' were the main reasons why the Malaysian authorities decided to raise the issue last year.
But there's also a cultural reason why a Malaysian official could so casually refer to a 'Muslim God': the emergence into the mainstream in Malaysia of Wahhabism, the extremist interpretation of Islam sponsored by the Saudi royal family.
Wahhabism was founded two centuries ago on a belief in the superiority of (Sunni) Muslims and the damning of Jews and Christians as 'infidels'. Historically alien to the diverse Muslim cultures of South- east Asia, Wahhabism spread like wildfire throughout the region in the wake of the 1970s oil boom.
The Saudi religious establishment spent tens of millions of dollars to fund mosques and universities, and offered lucrative scholarships for foreign Muslims willing to complete their religious education at Wahhabi-controlled institutions in Riyadh. It's no coincidence that the ban on Malaysian Christians using the world 'Allah' was first introduced in the early 1980s.
That politics and culture, rather than sound religious understanding, are really at the heart of the debate over the use of the word 'Allah' becomes obvious when Malaysia is compared with Egypt. It, too, has a sizeable Christian minority and a long tradition of Islamic pluralism.
Christians and Muslims in Egypt have lived peacefully together for centuries. But in the 1970s, millions of Egyptians began working in Saudi Arabia, and in many instances, when they returned, they propagated their newly learnt Wahhabi doctrine. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood was invited back from exile in the Saudi kingdom, and given a greater role in politics.
The result: Egypt's Christians suddenly found themselves under violent attack. Last week, three Christian workers were shot dead in a Cairo jewellery shop by assailants who stole nothing, while in Upper Egypt, three monks were kidnapped by Muslim extremists protesting against the renovation of a church. Egypt's Christian minority is voluntarily shunning Islamic-inspired terms and expressions.
Instead of greeting one another with asalam alaikum (peace be upon you), many now say ahlan (hi). Before starting a meal, instead of saying bismillah (in the name of Allah), they say bismasalib (in the name of the cross).
Where once they said without thought alhamdullillah (praise be to Allah), they now utter nushkrailrub (we thank our Lord).
In a recent Los Angeles Times article on God vs Allah, which was critical of the Malaysian government's stance, the Lebanese-American novelist Rabih Alameddine wrote: 'We never say the French pray to Dieu, or Mexicans...to Dios. Having Allah be different from God implies that Muslims pray to a special deity.
' It classifies Muslims as the Other. Separating Allah from God, we only see a vengeful, alarming deity, one responsible for those frightful fatwas and ghastly jihads - rarely the compassionate God.'
Creating more differences 'is troubling, even dangerous', he concluded. 'I suggest we either not use the word Allah or, better yet, use it in a non-Muslim context. Otherwise, the terrorists win.'
It's advice that the Malaysian authorities might benefit from.