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‘Allah’ Ban and Church Arson in Malaysia

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In Brief

Since Friday 8 January, arsonists and vandals have attacked ten churches around Malaysia. Four arson attempts took place on the same morning, following the conclusion of a two-year case before Malaysian courts, over whether non-Muslims can be prevented from using the term ‘Allah’ to describe God in the Malay language.

In 2007, the Home Ministry banned the term in the Catholic Herald newspaper, arguing it could confuse Muslims and cause offence, threatening national security.


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The Catholic Church challenged the order, and the High Court overturned the ban on 31 December. The arson attempts occurred on the morning of protests at three mosques after Friday prayers. Protesters held banners reading ‘Allah for Muslims only’, and ‘Do not test our patience’.

This impatience is new. ‘Allah’, an Arabic-language term for ‘the God’, has been used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews to describe God for centuries. The term has existed for longer than Islam itself. In Malaysia, Malay-speaking indigenous Christian communities have described God as Allah since adopting Christianity over the last two centuries.

The ban itself has existed since 1986. It has never been enforced until now.

The debate is unique to Malaysia. It reflects the most significant development in Malaysian public debate since the 1980s—the fusion of Islamist political rhetoric and tactics with those of Malay nationalism.

This fusion builds on a slippage between ‘the Malay community’ and ‘the Muslim community’, enabled by the Malaysian Constitution, which states that Malays are Muslim by definition.

The suggestion that Malay-Muslims could commit violence against minority communities is a genuine constant in Malaysian politics.

The government has announced it will appeal the High Court decision, which it argues is ‘wrong’. The campaign to ban ‘Allah’ for non-Muslims will now certainly continue.

The Government has relied on ‘Malay unity’, and now ‘Muslim unity’ to rule Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957. Non-Malay-Muslims, the minority, should in theory feel sufficiently threatened by the risk of violence from the majority to accept the ban.

If the Government’s strategy works as planned, it can use the arson attempts to prove there is a threat to national security. It can both restore security, and use the risk of violence to strengthen its High Court appeal. It can also then ban the non-Muslim use of ‘Allah’, appeasing the pro-ban constituency the Government and the protesters are trying to create.

Yet the sudden revival of the ban two years ago highlights the current difficulty for the Government in maintaining Malay-Muslim unity. The 2008 general election indicated that Malay-Muslim voters are more likely than ever to vote for opposition parties, currently united in a coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim, a former Deputy Prime Minister.

One such party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, has achieved a remarkable reversal in Malaysian politics by defending non-Muslims’ right to use ‘Allah’. It can now pitch itself as the moderate Muslim party, and the Government as extremists. This was unthinkable as recently as 2002, when the Government coalition’s campaign advertising portrayed PAS as the Taliban.

The Government argues only it can protect religious freedom. Last month, however, the Pew Forum, a United States think tank, ranked Malaysia the ninth most restrictive country in its 2009 Global Restrictions on Religion survey.

The High Court appeal will ensure the issue lives on.

A longer version of this essay is available here on Inside Story, and will be published in the Canberra Times on January 23rd.

Amrita Malhi is a PhD Candidate in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

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