Apples and oranges are fruit

“Malays here are different,” Datuk Seri Mahmood said. Thus, only Malays — who must be Muslim as per the Malaysian constitution — may use ‘Allah’ in Malaysia.

This is lame.

The good Datuk has set apart Malays from other Muslims around the world, saying that people ‘have to compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges’, because Malays are somehow so fundamentally different from Muslims that only Malays may use ‘Allah’ and deny their neighbours the ability to use the same.

From a high enough perspective, everything looks the same. Apples and oranges may be different fruit, but they are fruit nonetheless. In this issue, people are looking at Malays through the prism of religion. The world media has framed this as a religious, not racial, conflict. Malays are Muslims, and so are plenty of people around the world. They are not particularly concerned about political or cultural factors, rather religious ones. And Muslims around the world have no issues with their Christian neighbours using ‘Allah’. So, why do Malays have a problem? What is the difference the Malaysian government is alluding to?

Here’s my two cents. This difference is one of entrenched racial-religious superiority. The Malaysian constitution explicitly defines Islam as the religion of Malaysia and Malays as the people of Malaysia. Entrenching the special position of Malays, the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant political party, passed laws and policies collectively known as bumiputra, which provides affirmative action for Malays via discounts on housing, preferential admission for schools, and other socio-economic policies. These policies enforce the notion that Malays have a superior position in society, versus other minority races. UMNO has also sought to incorporate Islam into the Malay racial identity, most significantly in the Constitution.

Because a Malay is defined as a Muslim, and most Muslims are Malays, a perceived threat to one is seen as a threat to both. In this case, allowing non-Muslims to use ‘Allah’ is seen as a threat to the superiority of the Malay race, and the primacy of Islam. But the Muslim conservatives behind the church attacks and anti-Allah campaign have played up the religion card, making it seem to be a religious conflict. This, I believe, is the root of the church attacks in recent days: a perceived threat to the Malay-Muslim identity.

What can be done? The Malaysian government through Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom urged Christians to give up the use of the word ‘Allah’ to drop tensions. This is a very short-sighted move: it does not take away the simple fact that Arab-speaking non-Muslims around the world have used ‘Allah’ without interference from Muslims. If this measure were adopted, then in the very near future other, more outspoken, Christians will point this out to the federal government, and we will see a repeat of this dispute. Perhaps even on a larger scale. This strategy merely buries the issue, very much like ignoring an open wound. And open wounds fester in time, leading to greater harm.

The best strategy must be for the Malaysian government to drop its claim on the monopoly of the word ‘Allah’. Then it should seek to disentangle the Malay-Muslim identity and eliminate the special position of Malays in Malaysia. The bumiputra policy has already come under fire; indeed, Prime Minister Najib Razak, President of UMNO, exempted 27 sub-sectors of the Malaysian economy from bumiputra equity in April 2009, a tacit sign that bumiputra is failing. By removing the special position of Malays, the government would be acknowledging that all races are equal, and all religious may be practiced freely. Disengaging Islam from the Malay identity would reduce the magnitude tensions and conflicts. A perceived threat to Islam will not be seen as a perceived threat to Malays, so only Muslims, as opposed to Muslims and Malays, would have cause for offence if at all. As an added bonus, such artificial conflicts like the dispute over ‘Allah’ would have a decreased chance of occurrence, because fewer people will see a threat and act on that perception. Apples and oranges are fruit; a Malaysian Malay and a Malaysian Chinese are Malaysians, and ought to be treated as Malaysians, regardless of race or religion.

In the short term, this would definitely be painful. Expect demonstrations and protests by the conservatives and reactionaries, and more than a few attacks by extremists. Politically, the government stands to lose the support of the conservatives, especially Malays who believe in Malay superiority. In turn, however, the government stands to win the support of minority groups, liberals, and quite possibly a few opposition members. In the long term, however, the seeds of widespread racial and religious conflict would be erased. This, in turn, would mean a more harmonious society at the very least. While I do not have the necessary knowledge to comment on the impact on the economy, I suspect that a more liberal market system — at least not one artificially slanted towards the majority of the population — would be more stable, dynamic, and provide greater prosperity to more people than the current system. This is because a freer market system would introduce greater competition, forcing people to rely more on innovation and good practices than government policy, which sharpens efficiency and increases the drive to succeed in business.

That being said, I  do not think the government will take this stance. UMNO’s reason for existence is the protection of Malay culture and rights — which translates into the special position of Malays. To acknowledge that all Malaysians are truly equal would force UMNO to re-define itself, and lose the support of conservative Muslims and Malays. UMNO, I suspect, would see this as an unacceptable cost, and strive to protect an artificial distinction in order to protect itself and its perception of itself. It seems to me that this is the root cause of the government’s insistence on keeping ‘Allah’ for Malays. But when the concept of Malay superiority is finally disproven, an UMNO that clings on to these ideas will fade into the dusty annals of history.

The politics of choice, faith and inclusiveness

I am truly puzzled over recent events. In Malaysia, unknown attackers have firebombed four churches as the row over the word ‘Allah’ escalates. In France, Parliament will consider passing a law that bans the burqa or niqab later this month. I’ll look at both cases in this post.

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Let’s look at Malaysia. Conservative Muslims have argued that ‘Allah’ may only be used by Muslims; allowing other religions to use this word would lead to confusion and people converting from Islam. The very inconvenient fact that Arab-speaking Jews and Christians have and still use ‘Allah’ has been ignored thus far. The fundamentalists have framed this issue as defending Islam against…some kind of undefined, unspecified, possible intangible, yet somehow real aggressor.

How, exactly, do you ‘defend’ a religion? Can you build a suit of armour around a set of practices and beliefs? Perhaps mount weapons while you’re at it, and take potshots at threatening non-believers. Will shouting yourself hoarse  to drown out infidels work? The whole notion, frankly, is as absurd as measuring sanity with a ruler. You can’t quantify the unquantifiable, and that is exactly what they fundamentalists are proposing.

What is religion? Every religion is a series of practices based on a core of ideas. Christianity involves worship at a church and understanding the supremacy of God and the message of Jesus. Islam involves more regular worship at a mosque and understanding the supremacy of Allah and the message of the prophet Mohammad. What is ‘practice’? Something you do. The imperative word being ‘do’. And the precursor to action is a thought, an idea, that you need to do something. In this light, a religion is a collection of ideas bundled together for practice.

Now, how do you harm an idea? Do you poke it with a pencil until it comes apart? Do you shoot it until it exsanguinates? Do you blow it up with a bomb? Again, it’s like measuring sanity with a ruler — you can’t. Ideas can only be proven or disproven, credited or discredited. When disproven or discredited, ideas fade away — eventually. Let’s look at white supremacy. It is younger than Islam, has been disproven and universally condemned, is in fact implicitly illegal in anti-hate and anti-prejudice laws — and it is still around. Can Islam lose any of its character when it has been around for centuries, has not been disproven, is a mainstream religion, over a non-issue involving the use of a word that Arab-speaking Abrahamic believers everywhere outside Malaysia have used since pre-Islamic times?

The answer is no.

Do the fundamentalists see this? The answer is no. As it stands, they seem to embrace the notion that they are a majority group locked in an eternal conflict with other races, always on the defensive against perceived acts of aggression, ready to strike back at anything that threatens their sense of identity. Hence this. Frankly, if the collective body of fundamentalists could be seen as a human being, it would be diagnosed as paranoid.

Worse, they will spark self-fulfilling prophecies. See my previous post for a more in-depth explanation. Suffice to say, their actions will anger and provoke fundamentalists and extremists from other races and religions, or whomever their perceived antagonist of the day is. Those extremists would then be pushed towards hate crimes, justifying them as necessary actions ‘in defence of’ the Cause. The fundamentalists would decry these attacks from the opposing side, the extremists will perform other attacks, and a spiral of violence is born.

The only permanent solution is inclusiveness. Again, read my previous post. Yes, there will be short-term costs. Yes, there will be resistance. But to quote Arthur Schopenhauer, all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident. I’m hoping the Malaysian High Court is willing to facilitate this process. But I’m not holding my breath.

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France is also very concerned about Islam. So concerned that the French Parliament is moving to consider an outright ban on burqas and niqabs. This is done in the name of sexual equality and secularism, in the face of a growing number of Frenchwomen wearing the apparently formerly rare garment — so many, in fact, that the proponents of the law cannot give an actual figure (source).

This article is the one of the most insightful ones I have seen on this issue. Let me see this in a different light: will the law achieve its intended effect?

The answer, I think, is ‘partially, at high long-term cost’. Muslim women with a rather liberal interpretation of the faith may stop wearing the burqa — such a thing does not really inconvenience her. Devout Muslim women would either take off their burqas — and remember the government as one that rejects an aspect of the Muslim identity — or put up with a never-ending series of fines. Women who are ‘forced’ to wear the burqa will be caught between a rock and a hard place: put up with fines, or put up with a disapproving family. And they, too, will resent the State for putting them in such a position.

And then there’s the Muslims who will interpret the law as an attack on the faith, misguided or intentional. And devout Muslim males (and females) who will be offended at the sight of Muslim women not wearing the burqa or niqab.  Should the law pass, they will have a very convenient target to vent their anger: the French government. The result: hate crimes, for starters.

Islam, by the way, is France’s second-largest religion. You can imagine the hue and cry that would follow by appearing to oppress a large minority group.

The French approach is very similar to pointing a gun at a man and ordering him to do something for you. He may comply, but it doesn’t mean that he won’t resent you after the fact, or find ways and means to get back at you. Or he might not comply, and instead lash out at you. You achieve short-term compliance, but you are setting yourself up for long-term hostility.

What can be done? Again, the answer seems to come down to the principle of inclusiveness. The first step is to abandon the religion of secularism (not to mention the law to be passed in Parliament). This ‘principle’, interpreted in France, basically forbids anyone from practicing his or her faith in public — and seems to be squarely aimed at Muslims. The second is to introduce measures to integrate people of all religions into society: hold inter-religious conferences, visit ghettos, improve the lives of the less well-off regardless of faith, teaching children about other faiths, and so on. The third is to host dialogues within Islam regarding the niqab; Muslim scholars are divided on this issue, and by airing their arguments and beliefs, the people will be better informed, and choose accordingly. Discussing the actual policies is outside the scope of this post, but the key here would be information, choice, and inclusiveness.

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In the above two cases, the private intersects with the public. The practices of the individual is apparently at odds with societal norms. In both, I have argued for maximising the choice and right of the individual. This is because the nature of the individual influences society more than society influences the individual.

Here’s an analogy. Take a pencil, a ruler, and an eraser. You can do plenty with these things: write, do homework, draw, correct mistakes, and so on. Now insert a pen. You have thus put together a basic stationery set for the student who may only work with pens, not pencils; and the student or person who may use pencils has an additional option. Add a brush and some paints and now you have everything you need to produce a painting and sign it with your name. Throw in a pair of scissors and you can do basic craft work.

Take each item as an individual, and each group of items as society. The addition of people with different skills — or are just different — changes the nature of the group, and therefore society. A social group is thus a very fluid concept, dependent entirely on the properties of the people within. At the same time, how the people act may be influenced by the group, but not necessarily be a direct function of that group. For example, with my art and craft kit as described above, I can use the scissors to cut out a piece of paper for a work of art, cut open some paper packaging, or stab someone.

Why would I want to stab someone? The most likely explanation is that he or she seems to pose a clear and present danger to myself or someone else, is armed, and does not seem to be listening to my attempts at negotiation. Substitute ‘I’ for ‘extremist’, ‘stab’ for ‘attack’ and ‘someone’ for a social group of your choice (blacks, Americans, Muslims, etc.), and ‘someone else’ as the extremist’s identified in-group (white, Muslim, American, etc.). That right there is the driving factor behind many ideologically driven acts of hate and terror.

How do you prevent this? You remove the notion that there is a threat. You make yourself look less threatening and more friendly and tolerant. You listen to the views of someone else, no matter how contradictory to your personal beliefs, without judgment. In short, you be inclusive. Substitute ‘you’ for ‘society’ and ‘majority social group’ — this is how to prevent conflict. By removing a cause for conflict, and by building good relations, the individual will not feel threatened, and would be more willing to use his or her skills for the greater good. I can go back to using my scissors for my work, and I wouldn’t be afraid to lend it to you if you need them, so to speak.

Society is inherently fluid. It is temporary. The only real differences between a nation and a group of friends are capabilities, population, scale, reproductive capability and life expectancy. By empowering the individual with choices — be it by allowing him to use the word ‘Allah’ or ensuring that she may choose whether to wear her burqa — and by accepting that individual for who and what he is, society tends to benefit because that person’s skills can be harnessed willingly for the greater good of society. That, I think, is the final objective of politics.

The triumph of unreason

The Malaysian High Court has suspended a ruling that allows Catholic weekly newspaper The Herald to use ‘Allah’ in its publications. This occurred after the federal government argued that allowing non-Muslims to use the word ‘Allah’ would spark racial conflict. While it might in the short term, in the long term the consequences would be more dramatic than if non-Muslims used ‘Allah’.

Suppose that the High Court decides to rule against The Herald during the hearing on the paper’s appeal. The government has re-affirmed the Malay Muslim identity — at the expense of the Abrahamic minorities. Keep in mind that the Constitution defines a Malay as a Muslim, and Malays generally face extreme difficulties in converting out of Islam. Minority faith leaders would urge for calm and acceptance publicly. But their congregation would see such a ruling as unreasonable and oppressive. The government has effectively said that it will only allow people to practice their faith as the State sees fit, and the government will intervene if it offends the State’s sensibilities. The government would have effectively denied an aspect of their identity, by forbidding he use of the word ‘Allah’ via the courts. The politically inclined would read Articles 3 and 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia, and call the court’s behaviour unconstitutional — it could be argued that such a ruling infringes on the right to practice religion. Peoples of minority faiths might turn to different political parties to express their displeasure. And all it takes is for a reactionary or conservative to act out of hand for conflict to break out.

By ruling against the use of Islam, the state is rejecting an aspect of a minority faith’s identity (the out-group) in favour of an in-group. Worse, it is doing so for a false reason. For as long as the ruling remains, the state will continue to reject that aspect of identity. Now, take a moment to imagine how you would feel if you cannot practice your religion because you’re using the ‘wrong’ word — never mind that that word has been used for centuries, around the world. As long as you continue to use words proscribed by the State to describe your supreme being, you are a quasi-criminal. For most people, the answer would be anger, anger at an absurd notion. And anger, caused by a perceived threat to identity, is a very common cause of conflict. I would think it is safe to say that there exist people who do not, as yet, have the emotional skills training to effectively cope with anger, especially repressed anger caused by a legitimate grievance, in a healthy way. With the state affirming the in-group at the expense of the out-group, the out-group may decide that it is under siege, and circle the wagons against the out-group. Such things would be subtle: changing perceptions of Malay Muslims for the worse, or perhaps viewing the Malay Muslim-dominated government in a negative light. But how a person sees a world defines how he acts. If a Christian starts seeing a Muslim as a legitimate target for his anger, you have a recipe for violence. The probabilities only increase if there is a legitimate grievance underlying this anger, which in this case is a perception that a minority faith, your faith, is being oppressed. So long as a minority group (non-Muslims) sees the majority (Muslims) and the powerful (the government) as oppressive, the cause for anger exists and remains. It will remain until the ruling is struck down in the indeterminate, unforeseeable future. The result: a long-term, slow-boil, conflict. Maybe political, maybe limited only to court rooms and occasional scuffles and fights, but conflict nonetheless. Unnecessary conflict.

What if the High Court were to rule in favour of the Herald? I would imagine a hue and cry by conservative Muslims, tempered with a sigh of relied by minority faiths. Such a ruling, at its heart, is an affirmation of a minority group’s identity, bringing it under the umbrella of a larger group, in this case the Malaysian nation. The out-group is now part of the in-group. As any skilled negotiator will tell you, by affirming the other party’s self-image, you’ll build excellent relations with him — which is a prerequisite for delicate negotiations. This affirmation is not at the expense of Muslims. The word ‘Allah’ predates Islam. There is no real justification to oppose the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims. Any racial conflict, caused by Muslims attacking non-Muslims based on the use of the word ‘Allah’ or other religiously-motivated causes, would be nothing more than hate crimes. Hate crimes that could and should be persecuted to the full extent of the law, that could, should and would be condemned by authority figures that have taken the high moral ground of affirming, not rejecting, a minority group — and thus prevented from reaching the flashpoint of a race riot, or at least mitigate one in the extremely unlikely event that it occurs. In the former scenario, a non-Muslim attacking a Muslim would be a hate crime too — but with a legitimate grievance. It is this grievance that makes all the difference.

One needs to take a long view for this to make sense. Unfortunately, it is also rather abstract, and might be best explained as an analogy.

Take two organic blobs, one larger than the other, and place them next to each other. Each blob is very much like the human body. Every day, it grows new cells from the centre. At the same time, it discards the old, dead, outer layer of cells to make room for the new cells. As the rate of cell growth is the same as the rate of cell death, the blobs are more or less stationary and do not grow. Now, graft a thorn in the side of the larger blob, and pierce the smaller blob with it. Now the smaller blob is wounded by the larger one, courtesy of the thorn. Eventually the thorn integrates into the larger blob, effectively becoming part of it.

The smaller blob, sensing the foreign object, grows scar tissue around the thorn. The healing mechanism goes into overdrive to make up for the thorn, and the blob grows along the thorn towards the larger blob, steadily encroaching upon its space. Eventually both blobs come into contact with each other, and soon realise that they have no space to grow. Then their immune systems kick in, and engage each other in a war of attrition. Alas, neither side can overpower the other, and this conflict continues into eternity.

Suppose, before the conflict starts, you remove the thorn from the larger blob. The thorn slides off from the smaller blob, and falls away out of sight and interest. The patch that the thorn used to occupy is irritated and scarred, and possibly cannot heal completely. Over time, that layer of skin is shed, and the blob is whole again. Meanwhile, the smaller blob, recognising that the thorn is gone, accelerates the healing process. The hole in its side fills up with fresh cells. Over time, the scar tissue drops away. The result: the same two blobs, whole and healthy.

Now, take the smaller blob as representative of Malaysia’s Malay- and Arab-speaking Catholics, and the larger one as symbolic of Malay Muslims in Malaysia. The thorn here is the prohibition against the use of ‘Allah’, and other such artificial prohibitions and laws and regulations that discriminate against minorities. By removing the thorn, you may irritate Malaysia’s conservative Muslims — but not all of Malaysia’s Muslims are that conservative. And the generations that proceed the conservatives will wonder what all the fuss about discriminatory practices against non-Muslims was about, for they no longer exist and do not really matter anyway. For the other group, however, removing discriminatory practices would work towards healing wounded hearts and feelings and preventing conflict. It would also foster good will towards Malay Muslims, especially if they spearhead action against discrimination.

In the same vein, removing the ban on the word ‘Allah’ would work towards racial harmony in the long term. For two hundred years, blacks in America were treated as slaves at worst and second-class citizens at best. People justified this by many ways: religious prerogative, white man’s burden, natural order. But fifty years after the black civil rights movement, a black man is now President of the United States. And black autonomy and white supremacist organisations, once feared and violent groups, are now just fringe movements.

The Malaysian government is being short-sighted here. Retaining the ban is an expression of rejection of an out-group. It would sabotage efforts towards racial harmony. Minority faith Malaysians may turn to other political parties that promise religious freedom. Making an issue out this non-issue might anger more conservative and reactionary non-Muslims, sowing the seeds for racial conflict. The government’s approach towards this non-issue will backfire on itself. Such is the triumph of unreason.

The politics of a word

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has stated that the word ‘Allah’ may be used by the people of the Abrahamic faiths, which includes Catholicism. PAS’ president, Abdul Hadi Awang, ‘has also urged all parties not to politicise the matter for political mileage’ (TODAY,  06/01/ 2010).  Bear in mind that PAS is more conservative than the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Among PAS’ stated goals is establishing a Malaysian Islamic state and implementing shariah law, Islamic law prescribed by the Koran, for Muslims (source).

As a human being, I would like to think that PAS has adopted the way of common sense (see previous post for explanation on the word ‘Allah’) and leave it at that — not that I condone PAS to begin with. But, given the nature of this blog, I will analyse the whole issue in terms of politics.

PAS’ current political strategy is predicated on reaching out to non-Muslims, such as visiting churches and temples to reassure them of their religious rights (source). This declaration on Allah seems to be a logical extension of such a strategy. In effect, it attempts to make PAS appear concerned about the religious rights of minority faiths in Malaysia, by saying that the word ‘Allah’ is not restricted to Muslims alone. That statement makes PAS seem less hardline than UMNO on the issue of religion in Malaysia, in concert with other actions. For an Islamic political party, convincing non-Muslims that you will not take away their rights is critical, and thus far it seems that PAS has been doing this rather effectively. At the same time, PAS can reassure its colleagues with this statement in the Pakatan Rakyat political coalition that it is not out to undermine minority faiths. If pressed by its more conservative supporters, PAS can merely unroll the indisputable fact that the word ‘Allah’ predates Islam.

UMNO seems to be courting the conservative Malays by rallying them together on this issue — or is otherwise hung up on a non-issue — or is working in a misguided attempt to protect the rights of Muslims. PAS appears to be wooing more open-minded Muslims and minority faiths — or is indeed simply talking some sense in this issue.

So what’s really going on? I doubt you can get a straight answer from anyone. The politicians would usually pick the one that bolsters the image they are trying to build. The man on the street would pick the one that best fits his current worldview. And yet, with PAS taking the inclusivist approach, it is difficult to not pick the interpretation most favourable to PAS: that the party is tolerant of minority faiths, is making its stance known, and is using its position in society to influence events in favour of the minorities. On the other hand, it is difficult to not pick another interpretation for UMNO’s action: the party is only concerned with Malay Muslims and is using this issue for political advantage. I think it would certainly be difficult for the average citizen to believe that UMNO is merely being ignorant about this non-issue.

I think it’s time for UMNO to recognise that it cannot simply steamroll over minority faiths without repercussions. Otherwise the future of Malaysia would be a very different one indeed.

The word Allah

The Malaysian federal government is appealing against a High Court ruling allowing Catholic weekly newspaper The Herald to use the word ‘Allah’. It claims that only Muslims in Malaysia may use the word ‘Allah’. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad added that ‘Allah’ refers to God in Islam’.

This is not true.

The word ‘Allah’ predates Islam. It was around in the early days of Mecca, incorporated in the local religion. Meccan religion pre-Islam was a pantheistic faith, with several deities alongside Allah. Islamic scholar Sheikh Ibrahim  Al-Qattan stated that in the days of Prophet Muhammad, Allah was seen as the high god by Meccans.  (Source) I think the Prophet Muhammad used the word ‘Allah’ to communicate his message, in the same way a salesperson would use the word ‘car’ to begin an exposition on the latest offering from the automobile manufacturer Mercedes-Benz.

The word ‘Allah’ is used by Arabic speakers of Abrahamic faiths. Arab Christians use ‘Allah’ for God, as the word is a generic one referring to the supreme being (Source). Malta’s population is largely Roman Catholic, but the Maltese language is derived from Arabic. The word for ‘God’ in Malta is ‘Alla’. (Source) ‘Allah’, as seen, is just a word that approaches the concept of the divine in varying religions.

Quite frankly, this is a non-issue. The government seems to have conflated linguistics with culture. The simplest possible interpretation is that the Malaysian government has a very devout and conservative minister of Muslim affairs, who is woefully under-educated in this particular aspect. Also, certain conservative Muslim politicians and segments of the population have not yet been informed of this particular tidbit of history. What we are looking at might be a non-issue sparked by a mixture of ignorance and passion.

And yet..after going through some facts, I see a strange confluence of events.

Fact 1: The Herald was founded in 1994.

Fact 2: The current Allah controversy began in 2007.

Fact 3: 2008 is an election year.

Fact 4: The ruling Barisan Nasional Coalition, under the leadership of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), was facing intense criticism from the political opposition.

Fact 5: The government wished to win the state of Kelantan from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is a highly conservative political party that aims to form a Muslim state.

This is what I think. In the thirteen years between the founding of the Herald and the Allah controversy, the government banned the Roman Catholic Church from using the word ‘Allah’. The Home Minister lifted the ban after an appeal (The Sunday Times, January 3rd, 2010). The government then was still UMNO. If the use of the word ‘Allah’ were such an important issue, would the Home Minister have lifted the ban? It’s unlikely. At the very least, I would think that the Allah controversy would have stemmed from the day after the first issue of the Herald with the word ‘Allah’ was published.

UMNO’s claim to political legitimacy is that it represents the interests of the Malay community. As per the Malaysian Constitution, a Malay must be a Muslim. UMNO’s strongest direct competitor for the Malay Muslim vote is PAS.

It might be possible that this controversy was part of an UMNO scheme to win the conservative Malay Muslim vote — the same voter bloc that PAS is tapping into. By stirring this controversy, the government appears to be sending a message that it is looking out for the interests of conservative Malay Muslims. In particular, it seems to be implying that the Malay Muslim community should close ranks against the ‘outsiders’ painted to have misused the word for God — and that the government, and therefore UMNO, preempted PAS.

Could have such a scheme succeeded? Perhaps — if there were sufficient Malay Muslim outrage. But there were no public demonstrations, no widely spread petitions, no general hue and cry by the Muslim community. As the issue was submitted to the High Court for consideration, the shariah court cannot intervene, reducing the possibility of such a hue and cry. And, if this controversy were a political strategy, it is a rather high-risk one: there is a significant chance that the opposition would frame this issue as one of minority rights, freedom of religion, illegal government censorship and more, which would have significant repercussions in the 2008 elections. While this is probably a half-baked political move, it is not outside UMNO profile to use racial politics. In 2009, the UMNO-dominated government reverted to Malay as the main teaching medium for mathematics and science (Source) — doing so would disadvantage Malaysians who do not use Malay as often as Malays, such as Chinese and Indians.

That being said, the plan would not have mattered anyway. In 2008, the opposition won 47.8 percent of the vote, compared to 36.1 percent in 2004.  (Source)This is an increase of 11.7 percent. The opposition campaigned on a platform of government incompetency, citing rising inflation and crime rates, corruption, and increasing racial and religious tension. Getting Malay Muslims to close ranks and support the ruling party would only work if they view the government in a positive light, which they evidently did not. Perhaps this controversy aided the opposition instead of hindering it.

If I were cynical enough, I’d call the controversy a high-risk questionable-gain political move that did not accomplish its objective of gaining support for the government, and the fallout has yet to settle three years later. I’d also say that the government is attempting to salvage the mess, bolstered by the fact that 10 000 accounts have appeared in a Facebook group page titled “Menentang Penggunaan Alleh Oleh Golongan Bukan Islam”, which means “Against Non-Muslims using the word Allah”. (TODAY, January 4th 2010)

At the same time, the principle of Occam’s razor states that the simplest explanation is often the best one. And the simplest explanation is that this is simply a non-issue underpinned by ignorance.

No matter the truth behind the events, one thing is clear. The assertion that ‘Allah’ may only be used exclusively by Muslims is false. No one faith has a monopoly over ‘Allah’; it is as ridiculous as saying that only Xerox may use the word ‘photocopier’. For that reason, there is no reason for any kind of ban against ‘Allah’ to stand, nor any logical grounds for an appeal against the lifting of such bans. Kuala Lumpur surely has better things to do than flogging a shadow.