09 January, 2010

Why are the Christians claiming Allah?

The Malaysian “street” needs an education. The Malaysian High Court’s decision to overturn a three-year ban on the use by Christians of the word Allah was correct – based both on the freedom of Malaysians to practice their faiths, and also based on the facts. Unfortunately, public protests and violence over the decision has led to its suspension pending the hearing of a government appeal.

This is a political debate in Malaysia, not a religious one. My opinion is probably not going to be of much use in that political debate. And far be it from me to interfere in the Malaysian judicial process. But, please, I hope our sometimes ultra-sensitive Malaysian friends will entertain one simple fact: In Arabic, “Allah” means “God”, for Christians and Muslims alike. Every Sunday, millions of Arabic speaking Christians around the world (including in Muslim majority countries), hear the word “Allah” in their Sunday liturgies. Even in colloquial Arabic, “Allah” is used by Christians in any number of everyday expressions.

I’m not a religious scholar. But I can attest to having attended many such services, including my marriage and the baptisms of my children – all of which were performed in both English and Arabic. “Allah” is also used routinely by Malaysian Christians (this is not some new innovation), and by Indonesian Christians (to far less controversy).

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib’s statements that the Malaysian government will do all it can to prevent attacks on Christians over this issue is welcome. But it is the least the government can do. The absence of violence is important; so is the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice. The government should lead by example and drop its appeal.

When considering the political trends in Malaysia, all should understand that this debate over the word “Allah” is about limiting Christian practice, not protecting Islam. And at any rate, as Indonesia’s dear departed Gus Dur was known to say, God doesn’t need to be defended anyway.

- Walter Lohman

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