WHEN the Home Ministry forbids a non-Muslim group from saying “Allah”, then attempts to prevent it from publishing in Malay, the government is imposing more than a ban.
In both instances, the Barisan Nasional (BN)-led government is forcefully applying exclusivity for both the pre-Islamic name for the Almighty and the national language. The BN does not seem to see that more inclusive use of “Allah” and the national language are actually opportunities to unite Malaysians.
What strikes me the most about the government’s insistence on restricting the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims is sharp, irrational fear.
Fear that Malay-Muslims in Malaysia may lose their faith and flock instead to other faiths that also have the same name for the Almighty. Fear that perchance, the state has one less area where it can control Malay-Muslim thought and experience about diversity and similarities in different cultures and faiths in Malaysia.
If the Home Ministry’s recent statements are anything to go by, this fear isn’t about to abate anytime soon. Indeed, even in the light of historical fact — that “Allah” predates Islam — the ministry sees fit to impose a ban on the use of the word in the Catholic Herald.
The matter is pending in court. But one wonders why a non-Muslim group had to resort to taking the government to court over an issue that could have provided a space for reflections on unity.
See, “Allah” doesn’t belong to Muslims alone. It never did. In fact, Muslims weren’t even the ones who originally coined the name for the Almighty.
Internationally-acknowledged religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes in A History of God that the Arabic “al-Lah” is “the supreme name for God”. Armstrong adds, “Like many of the Arabs, Muhammad had come to believe that al-Lah, the High God of the ancient Arabian pantheon, whose name simply meant ‘the God’, was identical to the God worshipped by the Jews and the Christians.”
A Muslim friend who travelled to Syria discovered that “Allah” is used by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and mass celebrated completely in Arabic. Nobody was fussed about sharing the word, she said, and neither was anyone’s faith threatened.
This is, of course, not peculiar to Syria. “Allah” is widely used by non-Muslims in other Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. There is no doubt that “Allah” is shared by the Abrahamic faiths to refer to God.
Not only that, Sikhs have for centuries used “Allah” extensively in their writing and prayers. “Allah” is the word for God in their main holy scripture. Indeed, “Allah” is no Islamic Nike or Coke — a brand name that only Muslims can use.
More importantly, these historical facts provide us with an opportunity to nurture mutual respect and shared values among different faith groups in Malaysia. But what does the BN-led government do instead? It chooses to uphold the 1986-gazetted Home Ministry order preventing non-Muslims from using, among others, “Allah”.
Since different faiths have traditionally used “Allah” in this country, the government’s edict is in fact a signal that one community’s cultural traditions must take precedence over another. Worse, it’s indicating that it is the majority’s traditions and practices which are far more legitimate than the minority’s, driving yet another wedge between Malaysians.
What kind of government would resort to this politics of exclusion? What kind of leadership would profess unity in diversity, peddling the notion that the BN is the perfect formula for racial harmony, and yet create divisions where none should exist?
Language of unity
When the Home Ministry approved the Herald‘s publishing permit for 2009, it stipulated in a 30 Dec 2008 letter that among others, the permit was conditional on the Catholic weekly not publishing in Malay.
The ministry has since denied that such a prohibition was imposed. The fact is that there is black-and-white evidence that it did attempt to limit the use of the national language.
The Malay language, known before as Bahasa Malaysia, is a language of unity. Post-Merdeka, it was meant to unite the different ethnic communities at a time when forging national identity and unity were critical. Forging national unity is still critical and the Malay language is still a great unifier.
And yet, the government has demonstrated yet again that it is fearful of what the Malay language could do. Additionally, it has tried to deny the ownership Malaysians feel for the national language by preventing some groups from using it. Our founding leaders would have been disappointed, as today we should all be.
It is not for any government to dictate who can and cannot use the national language and in what context. What is our citizenship and nationhood about if we are not allowed to use the very language that unites us?
Clarity over confusion
On 3 Jan 2008, former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Dr Abdullah Md Zin asserted that the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims would “create confusion” among Malaysian Muslims.
If that were true, isn’t it incumbent on a government intent on promoting a developed and thinking nation — through Vision 2020 and Islam Hadhari — to dispel such confusion through rational and educated discussion?
Instead, the BN government is telling us we should be held hostage by ignorance and irrational fear. And in the process, it is using the politics of exclusion to push Malaysians apart.
If there’s any lesson that the BN can learn from the drubbing it’s received in three elections since March 2008, it’s this: Actions must match promises. More importantly, they must be grounded on rational, intelligent thinking and dialogue.
If the government’s actions don’t match up, then we can count on a disenchanted electorate finding more ways, apart from suing and voting differently, to challenge those in power.
1. ^ The other terms are “Solat”, “Kaabah” and “Baitullah”.
Jacqueline Ann Surin wants a government that is not driven by fear, ignorance and short-sightedness. She would support any leadership, either from the BN or the opposition, which is inclusive, respectful and intelligent.