Words of faith inflame Malaysia
By Baradan Kuppusasmy
KUALA LUMPUR - In a move that threatens to further inflame already mounting
religious and ethnic tensions, the Malaysian government announced that certain
Arabic words such as "Allah" cannot be used in the literature, gospel and
speeches of non-Muslim faiths.
Three other commonly used words ordered excluded from non-Muslim lexicon are "Baitullah"
(House of God), "solat" (prayer) and "Kaabah" (sacred house). The
decision has sent shockwaves through the country's Christian, Sikh and Hindu
which for centuries have liberally borrowed Arabic words in their religious
Many see the government decision as an infringement on their constitutionally
guaranteed religious freedoms. While Malaysia's charter says that Islam is the
"religion of the federation" and that other faiths are freely allowed,
non-Muslims increasingly fear freedom of worship is being curtailed by
officials influenced by a resurgent political Islam.
"Only Muslims can use [the word] Allah. It's a Muslim word. It's from the
Arabic language. We cannot let other religions use it because it will confuse
people," deputy minister for internal security Johari Baharum told the press in
explaining the rationale for the controversial decision. "We cannot allow this
use of 'Allah' in non-Muslim publications; nobody except Muslims [can use it].
The word 'Allah' is published by the Catholics. It's not right," he said.
But followers of Sikhism - which borrows heavily from both Islam and Hinduism
and also uses the word Allah to refer to god - are particularly upset over the
ban. "We have used the terms 'Allah' and 'Rahim' [most merciful]
extensively in our writings and prayers to refer to God. The word Allah is used
in our holy scripture," Malaysian Gurdwara Council chief Harcharan Singh told
"Sikhs have used these terms for centuries and they are part of the Punjabi
language we still use today," he said, explaining the dilemma for followers of
the faith, who are distinguished by their turbans and beards. "How are we going
to fulfill our religious obligation if commonly used words are reserved for
Muslims - I really don't know where we are heading as a nation with decisions
like this," he said.
Compounding the confusion, church leaders have now filed a lawsuit against
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and the government for banning the import of
Christian publications that contain the word Allah. The suit has asked for a
court ruling against any faith having exclusive right to the use of any
particular word. The case will be closely watched by Malaysians and foreigners,
including investors who fear that the country is slowly sliding into a
Although filed on December 10 by the Sidang Injil Borneo, the leading church in
Sabah on Borneo island, it is also supported by Malaysia's estimated two
million Christians. Malaysia's religious divide exploded into the open after
hundreds of thousands of Hindus demonstrated on November 25 demanding a larger
share of the national wealth and an end to state-backed Hindu temple
demolitions. Muslim fears that Christians have ulterior motives in using Arabic
words appear to be at the core of the government move.
"There is fear that the use of Arabic words common to Muslims and Christians
aids proselytizing," said a Muslim cleric who asked not to be identified.
"Muslims have long feared Christian proselytizing and the fear surfaced
strongly after the Lina Joy case," the cleric added, referring to the case of
Malay woman Azalina Jailani who converted to Christianity and was then
subjected to a brutal legal battle that ended last year with the highest
federal court ruling that the country's Muslims cannot legally leave their
Since then other cases have flared up between Muslims and non-Muslims involving
issues such as religious conversion, division of property and claims over dead
bodies and the rites for their disposal. Neither the courts nor the political
establishment, fearful of a backlash from conservative Muslims, have offered a
just or lasting solution to the spiking tensions.
To quell Muslims' apprehensions, church leaders have explained that disputed
Arabic words are used only in Christian publications that are exclusively used
by non-Muslims and further that the words are used in sermons inside churches.
It is considered an offence to proselytize among Muslims and punishment may
include a fine or jail term.
Instances of Muslims converting to other religions are rare compared with the
some 7,000 non-Muslims who convert to Islam annually. In addition, a large
state-funded Muslim bureaucracy assists converts to Islam, taking care of their
welfare and helping them adjust psychologically to their new faith.
Meanwhile, church leaders say the ban on the use of certain Arabic words is
hurting the country's international image as a moderate and inclusive plural
society. In a statement, the Christian Federation of Malaysia expressed "deep
disappointment and regret" at the government's decision. "The words predate
Islam and it is wrong to bar others from using them in private worship and
internal Christian publications," said the federation's executive secretary,
Reverend Herman Shastri.
"We never preach to Muslims and they should not worry," he said, rejecting the
government's arguments for the policy. Ramon Navaratnam, a leading secularist
and head of the Center for Public Policy Studies, said the policy was
unconstitutional to ban certain religions from using the words. "It is the
constitutional right of Malaysian citizens to profess their own religion and
using the terminology and language of their choice is part of that fundamental
right," he said.
Political observers say political compulsions prompted the government to move
ahead with the ban, even though it is clearly unpopular with non-Muslims
minority groups. With general elections around the corner, they said, the
government is appeasing the conservative Muslim majority to win political
support at a time Abdullah's popularity is falling.