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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 10, 2008
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 communities, 



which for centuries have liberally borrowed Arabic words in their religious practices.

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 the media.

"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 Taliban-style theocracy.

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 faith.

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.

(Inter Press Service)

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