21 April, 2010

Should Christians be allowed to say 'Allah' in Malaysia?

Father Andrew Lawrence pulls a fat red binder from a shelf inside his cramped office, where he edits a weekly Roman Catholic newspaper. Inside the binder are reams of documents from its decade-long dispute with Malaysia's government over the right to refer to God as "Allah," as Muslims do.

For a small paper like the Herald (circulation: 14,000), such a legal case can be ruinous. But the row has spiraled into a litmus test of tolerance and political maturity in this multifaith country of 28 million people.

The "Allah" row stirs strong emotions here in part because it is as much about race and language – and politics – as it is about religion. It also exposes the historical divisions between west and east Malaysia, where the majority of the country's roughly 1.4 million Roman Catholics live.

For centuries, Christian Malay speakers have prayed to Allah, the Arabic word for God. In neighboring Indonesia, a majority Muslim country with a near-identical language, the use of "Allah" by Christians is uncontroversial, as it is across much of the Middle East.

"It isn't complicated. We use it in our churches. It's part of our prayers," says Father Lawrence.

Opponents say that Christians can use other Malay words for their translations and should leave "Allah" for Muslims. "For me, 'Allah' shouldn't be used by other religions. If they use 'Allah,' our kids might get confused," says Nur Fadilla Zaaba, a resident.

The government has also used this argument, saying that it increases the risk of conversions of Muslims, which is illegal in Malaysia. The High Court rejected this and other similar arguments, pointing out that the Herald is sold only to Christians and "had never intended or caused any conflict, discord of misunderstanding" in its use of "Allah."

Opposition lawmakers claim that Malaysia's coalition-run government, dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), uses the "Allah" issue to rally its base among Malay Muslims, who make up about 55 percent of the population.

Khairy Jamaluddin, a UMNO executive, argues that the party is trying to tamp down communal tensions. He says comparisons with Indonesia are misleading, as Islam has taken a more syncretic path there. "Malay Muslims have linguistic, religious, and ethnic ownership of the word because of the way that it came to Malaysia. For it to be used for a Christian God, it is an affront to them," he says....more

- The Christian Science Monitor.

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