05 January, 2008

'Allah' only for Muslims !

Malaysian government has reiterated that non-Muslims cannot use the word “Allah”, sparking concern on Friday among Christians who use it to refer to God in their Malay-language Bible and other publications.

Abdullah Zin, the de facto minister for Islamic affairs, told reporters on Thursday that the cabinet is of the view that “Allah” refers to the Muslim God and can only be used by Muslims, who comprise about 60% of Malaysia’s population.

“The use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims may arouse sensitivity and create confusion among Muslims in the country,” Abdullah said.

His statement is the latest twist in a long-drawn controversy involving The Herald , a weekly organ of Malaysia’s Catholic Church. It was told by the internal security ministry last month that its Malay-language section would be banned unless it stops using “Allah” as a synonym for God.

But the paper was surprised when the ministry made an about-turn last weekend by renewing its annual permit - a requirement for all publications in Malaysia - without any conditions. The paper assumed it was a tacit approval for the use of "Allah".

The comments threw the issue into fresh confusion, and will likely renew complaints by ethnic minorities that their rights are increasingly undermined because of government efforts to bolster Islam, Malaysia's official religion.

Allah by Any Other Name
By Patrick J. Lyons
The New York Times

Here’s a headline to get the little gray cells puzzling: The Malaysian government has “reminded” — that is, ordered — a Catholic newspaper published in the country not to use the word Allah.

Why not? “To avoid confusion.” See if you think it succeeded.

Malaysia’s population is mostly Malay and mostly Muslim, but the country has sizable (and somewhat overlapping) ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, including about 900,000 Catholics (4 percent of the total population). Tensions and resentments between Malays and other groups — usually the country’s ethnic Chinese, who play a large role in its economy — have been a dominant theme in its politics.

One more important fact to know: In Malaysia, you need a government permit to publish a newspaper, even a little 12,000-copy tabloid like The Herald, which prints 28 pages of Catholic-themed news and features in four languages: Malay, English, Tamil and Chinese.

As you can imagine, a Catholic newspaper often has occasion to refer to God, which would appear to pose no problem in three of those languages. In Malay, however, it has long been the practice for Christians to use the same name for the deity that Muslims do: Allah. And that has to stop, the government has decreed.

After seeming to renew The Herald’s permit without conditions last Sunday, it told the paper today that the warnings it issued late last year to switch to using another Malay word ( “Tuhan”) still stood, and that “Allah” was henceforth reserved strictly for the Muslim deity.

Hold the phone.

First of all, aren’t the Judeo-Christian and Muslim deities one and the same, even if worshiped in very different ways? That seems to be the near-universal opinion; Muslims the world over refer to Allah as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

And “Allah” — that’s originally an Arabic word, one that even predates the foundation of Islam. Christians in Arabic-speaking countries use “Allah” for their God all the time, and nobody seems befuddled.

While we’re at it, Islamic tradition and a well-known saying of Muhammad’s assert that God has 99 names, not just one (though there are conflicting lists of the official 99).

And yet, Agence France-Presse reports that Abdullah Mohamad Zain, a Malaysian government minister, was quoted in Friday editions of The Star, a Malaysian paper, saying “The use of the word Allah by other religions may arouse sensitivity and create confusion among Muslims.”

The Herald’s editors say they will fight the “reminder” in court. Meanwhile, The Lede will try to disconfuse itself by puling out its well-thumbed Arthur C. Clarke anthology and rereading “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

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