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.