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.