January 12, 2010
KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysians non-confrontational approach to race matters has been instrumental in nation building. And so it would seem the appropriate response to Muslim anger over a court ruling allowing a Catholic newspaper to use the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian god in its Bahasa Malaysia edition would be for the country’s non-Muslims to “give Allah back” to the Muslims. After all, nine churches have been attacked since Friday, apparently in response to the court decision.
Forfeiting the right, in fact, would push the nation closer to the brink by communicating in effect that intolerance will be rewarded.
That message has been delivered frequently in recent years, guided by the notion that Muslim “sensitivities” must be protected (which is the nice way of saying some quarters are prone to intolerance).
It was on these grounds that Abdullah Badawi’s government (2003-2009) shot down the idea of an inter-faith commission; forced an NGO seeking enforcement of the secular constitution to disband; and caved in to Islamist groups demanding that international pop stars dress “modestly.”
The concessions continue to pile up under Najib Razak and have corresponded with greater demands and more brazen protests. Last summer, a group of Muslims kicked and spat on a bloody cow’s head – sacred to Hindus – after Friday prayer. The police, who have been known to hose peaceful protesters seeking democratic reforms on grounds that are a threat to national security, permitted the cow head protest, and the home minister later defended the incitement.
Only now, after years of compromises that hardliners have come to equate with victory (rather than a sign of respect worthy of reciprocity), have the Malays gone so far as to demand “god” for themselves, and does Malaysia undergo an unprecedented burst of religious violence.
With that in mind it is encouraging to see that Christian leaders are not cowering in the face of Muslim rage and will continue to use the word “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia.* (Christians here have been using the Arabic word for “one god” that predates Islam for generations without controversy, as do Christians in Indonesia, Egypt and other Muslim countries.)
“We are quite fearful but we will pray for protection and believe God will intervene in this matter.”Daniel Raut, a senior leader of the Borneo Evangelical Church, the largest Malay-speaking congregation in the country, was quoted as saying. Some 300 churches in peninsular Malaysia and hundreds more in east Malaysia on the island of Borneo reportedly worship in the Malay language using “Allah.”
Provocation must be resisted in Malaysia. Compromise is essential. But it must cut both ways. And if non-Muslims cave in now, after a string of radicalizing capitulations, who knows what the hardliners will demand next.
* Just as it has been heartening to see Muslims stand up for their right of religion by peacefully protesting the ban against the construction of minarets in Switzerland.