This ‘Allah’ episode has showcased the paranoia of the ruling elites over the possibility of losing their grip over the majority community, observes Teo Sue Ann.
On 15 October 2013, the battle over the right to use the word Allah by the Christians and Muslims in Malaysia came to another decision—the word will remain banned for Christians, at least in The Herald.
The chief judge, Mohamed Apandi Ali, fell back to the justification – that it was to save the Muslims from unnecessary confusion that could result in them committing apostasy. Mohamed Apandi was also quoted in media as saying that there was a need to protect the sanctity of Islam as the main religion of the country and to insulate it against any probable threats.
For many, the so-called “probable threats” may sound amiss. The word Allah has been used by the Christians for centuries to refer to God but it is now being perceived to be threatening to the Muslims – only in Malaysia, which is indeed hard to comprehend.
But the chief judge did speak the truth about protecting the sanctity of Islam as the country’s main religion—a ‘duty’ that has been upheld by the ruling power as part of their Islamisation campaign since the 1970s. This ‘Allah’ episode served as another warning sign of the ability of the government to override the rights of the non-Muslims by monopolising an ancient word.
The issue now is neither that the government does not understand the historical discourse of the word nor the uproar of the non-Muslims from the ground. Rather to fully grasp the fundamental issue is to acknowledge the disturbing fact about how the Islamisation movement has been consistently and effectively used by the state to secure their majority support.
Based on the Malaysia population census to date, about 92 per cent of the population in Malaysia are religious believers. Among them, Muslims consist about 61 per cent, and over 90 per cent of the Muslims are ethnic Malay. One look at the numbers shows that Malay Muslims barely touch the level of being the largest ethnic group, which ultimately means that there is much to be done to secure the much needed majority support for the ruling government to stay in power.
From the 1980s, the Islamisation process has started to creep into legal prerogatives and bureaucratic development. In 1982, the Shrine Control Act was imposed, ostensibly because ‘unlawful’ shrines were hindrances to urban development. This seemed especially applicable to the Hindu shrines, which could develop into temples – and when they do, worshippers would claim de facto rights to the land.
Then the word ‘Allah’ along with other 41 terms was forbidden for the non-Muslims (with the same reasons given by Mohamed Apandi) in 1989. In 1991, they were reduced to only four terms: ‘Allah’, ‘Solat’, ‘Baitullah’ and ‘Kabaa’.
Using religion to politicise the community boundaries has never benefited anyone but those who hold the reins of power.
The seemingly sympathetic situations of the non-Muslims are fact, affecting our fellow Muslims as well. Simply put, if the government, as the gatekeeper for the religious boundaries between communities groups, is restricting the “others” from being integrated with them, the same restrictions would also be imposed on the majority members to prevent them from being assimilated with the “others”.
For the Malays in Malaysia, their religious faith is determined by birth. Those who show any inkling of possible interest with other religions besides Islam will be prosecuted. In 1987, a Eurasian singer produced a Malay album and was heavily condemned by the Malay-language media because she was portrayed in her poster wearing a gold-cross necklace.
It is precisely the flimsy justification for the restriction of the use of the word Allah that reflects the insecurity of the government over the life-long faiths of the Muslims, who, we are told, would easily get confused if the word is uttered by non-Muslims or written in other books other than Qur’an.
Moreover, we have witnessed numerous cases of Malaysian Muslims being “convicted” for apostasy. The news about them being detained in the rehabilitation centres while being torn away from their spouses and children must surely have instilled fear in other Muslims of the consequences of leaving the majority Muslim group.
This ‘Allah’ episode has showcased the paranoia of the ruling elites over the possibility of losing their grip over the majority community. The consequences are felt by both Muslims and those of other faiths alike. It should be seen as yet another of the government’s defence mechanisms in play against the possible threats to their political power and not as a religious issue.
Teo Sue Ann follows the Aliran website.