Thursday, 9 January 2014

Unholy row: Malaysia’s ‘moderate’ religious agenda in ‘Allah’ use wrangle

Religious authorities have boldly confiscated hundreds of Malay language bibles over their use of the word 'Allah’, a signal that the Malaysian government is backpedaling on its highly flaunted program of moderation and inclusivity.

Malaysia has garnered much international attention in recent years for being the only country in the world to regulate the use of the word ‘Allah and other terms deemed to be exclusive to Islam among its non-Muslim citizens.

The term ‘Allah’ is borrowed from Arabic and is used to describe ‘God’ in the language used by the nation’s dominant Malay ethnic group, who practice a brand of Islam that is deeply interwoven with Malay nationalism. Malaysia’s Christian minority has used the term ‘Allah’ in Malay language bibles and daily prayers in churches to refer to the Christian god for centuries, but a controversial court ruling in 2013 prohibited a Catholic newspaper, The Herald, from using the word. Despite the prohibition of the term applying only to The Herald and not to other publications, religious authorities recently took the unprecedented step of raiding a Bible Society and confiscating over 300 Malay language bibles on the basis that public disorder would ensue unless the term ‘Allah’ remains exclusive to Islam.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has put much emphasis on his ‘1Malaysia’ slogan in an attempt to showcase Malaysia’s brand of political Islam as being moderate, inclusive, and capable of sustaining harmony among the country’s complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious landscape. However, the inherent contradictions of the leadership’s official message of moderation and co-existence have become increasingly more apparent as many Islamic jurists, who have adopted exclusivist positions on sensitive inter-faith issues, have been handed sizeable authority by the ruling establishment to influence policy.

The issue may appear to outside observers as a trivial row over religious semantics, but this controversy has proven capable of enflaming tensions between the Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnic groups, and has even provoked communal violence in the past.

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Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at