Readers might already be aware of the controversy in Malaysia about whether Christians are allowed to use the name “Allah” to refer to (their) God. In 2009 a court had ruled in the Christians’ favor, but that decision this week was overturned on appeal. SBS ran a thorough report on the story on Tuesday, and it was also covered by the BBC.
Not to be missed, however, is today’s discussion in the Age by Waleed Aly. He gets to the heart of the matter, and the heart of it is politics, not religion:
Why should this suddenly be a problem? The Malaysian court held that Allah “is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity” and that therefore its use in a Catholic newspaper “will cause confusion in the community”. The fear, apparently, is that Muslims will suddenly start practising Christianity if both faith groups refer to God by the same name. Malaysian Muslims therefore need a form of protection from their own ignorance that no Muslim community has needed anywhere at any time.
But this isn’t about that. If it were, you’d expect Malaysia’s Islamist opposition party (PAS) to be at the forefront of this charge. But they aren’t. In fact, they’re mildly opposed.
This is instead about an old guard of Malays (who are officially always Muslims) confronting the fact the privileged position they’ve held for the first 50 years of Malaysian independence simply can’t hold for the next 50. Now they’re lashing out, as if trying to resist the death throes of their own supremacy.
I’m no friend to religious fundamentalism, but I have to admit it sometimes gets a bad rap. A number of conflicts that look religiously inspired (Northern Ireland is another notorious case) turn out, on closer inspection, to be about something else. In this case it’s about racial scaremongering and political self-interest: God (or Allah) is just the excuse.
Aly says that the Malaysian government “clings to power only thanks to a brazen gerrymander.” He’s right (strictly speaking “malapportionment” would be a better word) – I wrote about it at the time, and Adam Carr has a particularly detailed and trenchant analysis. It’s not surprising that prime minister Najib Razak would be keen to find a diversion and to lock in the Malay chauvinists as allies.
Further confirmation of Najib’s desperation comes from another Fairfax story this morning, which reports that a Malaysian government official has warned Malaysian students in Adelaide against attending an event tomorrow with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, threatening “stern action” against those who do.
Anwar will be appearing as part of the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, where he is to be interviewed by, yes, Waleed Aly, and introduced by another controversial figure, Senator Nick Xenophon, who was denied entry to Malaysia by the Najib government earlier this year. Between them they could no doubt have a fascinating conversation about God, Allah and politics.
It would be really interesting to treat the “Allah” dispute on a philosophical level. Is there a sense in which rival religions mean the same thing when they talk about “God”? What sense can a monotheistic religion make of the idea of a “different” God? How should one best translate the Muslim profession of faith: is it “There are no gods but Allah”, or just “There are no gods but (the one) God”?
But to do so would ultimately just assist a discredited government in pretending that it was concerned about something other than its own survival.