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.

Apples and oranges are fruit
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