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 politics of a word
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