Arab News has been running coverage of the story out of Malaysia wherein Christian churches are being burnt because a nationalist political party has drummed up a cockamamie idea that ‘Allah’ somehow doesn’t cover the Christian God. For Christians to use the term, they state, is blasphemous and must be punished. It’s weird, too, that the Malaysian government had actually had a law preventing Christians from using the word ‘Allah’.

As Daisy notes in a comment on the Minarets post, there is a marked correlation between religion and ethnicity in Malaysia. This ‘ban’ is actually an effort to suppress an ethnic group that tends to follow Christianity. It conflates ethnicity and religion to make a point in a way popular to at least some nativists.

While the OIC might condemn attacks on mosques in Iraq, I don’t see them making the least comment about actions like these. This is a place where the OIC could actually be helpful. Wonder what’s keeping them away from the issue?

9th church attacked as Malaysian row deepens
Romen Bose | AP

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia on Monday defended its refusal to allow non-Muslims to use the word “Allah,” as a dispute over the issue saw a ninth church attacked in a spate of fire-bombings and vandalism.

The Sidang Injil Borneo Church in the central state of Negri Sembilan was the latest to be targeted amid anger over a court ruling that overturned a government ban on minorities using “Allah” as a translation for “God.”

The church attacks which erupted last Friday have sent tensions soaring in the multicultural nation, where the Muslim Malay majority lives alongside ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

… Azmi Sharom from the Universiti Malaya criticized the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) for stoking Malay nationalism in order to protect its voter base, after 2008 elections where it lost unprecedented ground to the opposition.

“The soil has already been prepared by UMNO… the tone has been very much about the Malays being under threat’ Sharom said, adding that the “Allah” ban had no basis in theology.

“Instead of making a stand on principle, (UMNO) are trying to make sure they don’t lose appeal to their voters even if it means they are appealing to a bunch of racists,” he said.

January:12:2010 - 11:00 | Comments & Trackbacks (15) | Permalink
15 Responses to “More Politicizing of Religion”
  1. 1
    Daisy Said:
    January:12:2010 - 12:03 

    Thanks John, for this timely post.

    Not only have the OIC condemned the attack on mosques in Iraq but the Saudi religious scholars – yes, Saudi scholars of all the people on the earth – also condemned the Swiss minarets ban –

    What’s keeping them from condemning these attacks? The understanding that Christians are fallen people of the Book after all, by virtue of adding a son with God? So why protect their churches?

    The sadistic pleasure in the fact that with every church fallen, it’s an extra gain for Islam?

    The misplaced and misguided logic of “divine justice” in retribution for the US attacking the Muslim lands?

    Never mind that every American is not necessarily a Christian, certainly not a Catholic.

    Never mind that if one is not a human being first then there is no point in being a good follower of one’s religion – no matter what religion it is.

    And if one does not condemn these attacks then one is not a human being.

    At the risk of getting accused of being an Indophile again – which I am really not, my friends think I’m anti-Indian – I would like to mention here that during my Convent School years I also had the occasion of reading the Bible in Hindi – in which they use a unversal Hindu term for God to translate the Biblical God. This is a common usage in the Hindi translations of the Bible in India and no one has any objection to it – this idea never crosses anyone’s mind that one should object.

    There is also a very popular Hindi song, in which the idea is expressed that the God, Allah and the Hindu God are the same and this common deity should give sanity to all.

    And no one has any objection to this song.

    The question is if for centuries Malaysia didn’t have this objection, then why now? The political party is inciting this hatred, but why are the people listening? From where did they get this idea that they should be so absolutely inhumanly violent?

    Why is not the world – democratic as well as Islamic – doing anything about it?

    What has happened to our human sensibilities?

    Or are we too scared of public censure to speak?

  2. 2
    oby Said:
    January:12:2010 - 13:06 

    “Malaysia’s Christians say they have used the word without incident for centuries, but the ruling party — which is vying for popularity among Muslims with the opposition Islamic party — insists it must be used only by Muslims.

    It says that the use of “Allah” by Christians could cause confusion among Muslims and encourage religious conversion, which is illegal in Malaysia.”

    What the heck am I missing here? Seems to me this is the answer. It is a political move pure and simple at the cost of diversity and freedom of religion. If it is ILLEGAL to convert who the heck cares if they use the word or not? Do they really believe that there will be a mad rush by Muslims to convert ILLEGALLY? What would be the penalty? Certainly not something too lenient. Are Muslims so weak minded as to let a word push them over the edge and into someone else’s camp? Why does it feel to me that the Muslim world wants to have such an iron fisted hold on it’s people that they don’t even trust them to love their own religion enough to not want to convert? Why does the religion have to be run like the communist party or the mafia…once you get in there is no way out. I am not a Muslim, but for heaven’s sake even I have more faith in Islam and it’s people than that. Let me ask this…why have the ban on the word Allah in the first place if it has been used for centuries?

    It is crap like this that bugs me to no end…quiet, peaceful, for the most part tolerant Malaysia is now also caught up in this firestorm of radicalism over a WORD. Have Muslims just COMPLETELY lost their perspective in life? Are they not concerned that the world is going to view them as the most intolerant people on the face of the earth. At some point you have to say, “this is not a fight worth going to the mats over.”

  3. 3
    John Burgess Said:
    January:12:2010 - 13:16 

    When people get squeezed, they look for answers to both why they are the ‘targets’ and who is doing the squeezing. Particularly if the squeezing forces are coming from vague or chaotic sources–e.g., ‘change’–then there’s a tendency to find villains wherever they might be found. For centuries, bad crops or an animal plague in Europe would be laid at the feet of the nearest, convenient ‘other’, usually the Jews. Malaysia, as is most of the world, is going through unprecedented change. Some don’t like that; some are sorely disadvantaged by it. Look for the ‘other’ and you’ve got someone to blame, someone upon whom you can take out your anger and fear.

  4. 4
    Sparky Said:
    January:12:2010 - 14:01 

    I am very disgusted with a lot of things right now…



    to trademark his holy name…LMFAO…

  5. 5
    oby Said:
    January:12:2010 - 14:43 


    While that might be true don’t you think it would be the minorities that would feel that way? They are at the disadvantage in numerous ways, politically disadvantages being only one?

  6. 6
    John Burgess Said:
    January:12:2010 - 15:34 

    While this is the behavior of dominant groups, in the words of Jonathan Swift, “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em / And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.”

    It seems all social groups, no matter their size or status, need whipping boys.

  7. 7
    oby Said:
    January:12:2010 - 18:13 


    Thanks for the link. I’m not sure I get the point…if we were talking about using it in an English context I would agree with you. If Allah has been used by Christians in the past for decades I see no reason why it should be limited now. I found this which I thought was very interesting from the other side of the fence.

    This is the link:

    It reads in part:

    “New Year’s Eve brought the news that the High Court in Malaya has decided that Malaysian Christians can use the word “Allah” to refer to God. This is especially significant for Malay (Bahasa Melayu) speaking Christians who have been in a dilemma since the Cabinet banned the use of the word “Allah” for Christians some two years ago. It was particularly felt in the two East Malaysian States of Sabah (my homeState) and Sarawak since as many as 90% Malay-speaking Christians are found in these two States.

    As a Malay-speaking Christian from Sabah who has used the Malay Bible (Alkitab Bahasa Indonesia since 1960s and the Malay Bible published by the Bible Society of Malaysia since 1997) for more than 20 years and last 15 years as a minister of the Gospel ministering among the indigenous peoples of Borneo who have used “Allah” to refer to God long before independence (whether you deem it 16th Sept 1963 or 31st August 1957), I was no doubt appalled by the ban and delighted that it had been overturned by the High Court.

    Indigenous Christians in Sabah (and Sarawak) have used the Malay language in general and Malay Bible in particular since 1950s including the use of the word “Allah” to refer to God. My denomination has used Malay since its founding, officially registered as a Church in 1959 under the Trustees Ordinance (British) which ordinance is now recognized as law by the Federation of Malaysia when Sabah together with two other entities (Sarawak and Singapore) joined Malaya to form Malaysia on 16th Sept 1963.”

    It seems to me to be a ploy used by the majority political body to garner support among the Muslim majority and in the process stirred up obviously latent racial tensions. Up until this point everyone was fine…all of a sudden there is violence against a minority religion over a word. If conversion was a problem, why were Muslims not converted over the years since they have been using it?


    I am going to take a self imposed time out for a day or so(if I can manage to stay away-LOL!). I am feeling like my objectivity is slipping and at this point I am not able to be open minded. I have had enough of violence and Muslims and injustices committed against Islam real or perceived. I am not normally disrespectful but I am feeling like I am a little less than open minded at this point. Thanks for being patient with my views.

  8. 8
    John Burgess Said:
    January:12:2010 - 21:11 

    I think it’s just an attempt to stir up the mobs with nativist sentiment. A cheap–but effective–political ploy.

  9. 9
    Chiara Said:
    January:12:2010 - 22:32 

    Oby–interesting article. The Malay use of the term Allah to me means that Christian missionaries who also did the Malay translations of the Bible went with the term used by the previously Muslim, or Muslim-influenced Malaysians, since Islam was in Malay before the time of this missionary activity. The English language issue is more for the anglophones discussing this, and seemingly unaware of the implications.
    I agree, and have said from the outset that the motivations are more likely socio-political. Also extremists are extreme by definition including the violent ones, whose behaviour is nonetheless inexcusable.

    You know best about your need for a break, but it is certainly true that being steeped in research and discussions about violence has a negative impact, and one needs a breather. That is one of the reasons that I have to be careful how much I read at one time about torture wherever in the world in researching PTSD: one can come away with a very negative feeling generally.

  10. 10
    Chiara Said:
    January:12:2010 - 23:30 

    Addendum–The final paragraphs of the article I cited about do reflect on the types of ethnic and religious (since they are tied in Malaysia) problems among Malays, Indians, and Chinese (the latter are also addressed at the end of the article among the pagans and idolaters). In short, although Malaysia has in the past been held up as model of ethnic and religious collaboration, obviously there are also tensions.

  11. 11
    Daisy Said:
    January:13:2010 - 05:24 

    Oby has a point and I thought of writing it in my comment, but then changed my mind. The fact is that Malay Muslims are prohibited to convert out of Islam. In that case this entire argument of the Church trying to convert the Muslims into Christianity is not valid. This argument has been floated by the vested interests in Malaysia to gain a political mileage by arousing popular sentiments as John mentions.

    I feel the issue of whether “Allah” is Arabic and whether it can be used in any other language in any other religion is meaningless from the religious perspective.

    The essential question is – how many Supreme Divine Powers can there really be? The answer is – of course, only one. If there are more than one then they are not “Supreme Powers.”

    This means that all forms of religiosities in ALL religions (and I have defined all religions in the post on minarets, this concept goes far beyond only monotheisms) refer to the same divine power. They conceptualise them differently, call them differently, pray to them differently, but the basic fact remains – there can be only one Supreme Divine Power. If Jesus is included along with God, these are two different manifestations of the same Divinity. If Hindus worship many gods and goddesses, these are myriad manifestations of the same Divine Power. Abrahamic monotheisms explicitly state that there is only one Divine Power, so it does not really matter by what name this God is being called by whom. This is the reason Hindi Bible can use the Hindi term for the Hindu God and there is no problem about it.

    It is clearly not the case of God being defined in linguistic or religious terms or a fear of conversions, since Muslims in Malaysia can’t convert. This is an insane hatred being incited for political mileage. And there should be international pressure on Malaysia against this – regardless of what the OIC countries may think.

    It is ironical that the concept of only one single divine power has to be explained by me – coming from a tradition where multiple divinities are accommodated alongwith the concept of a single divinity, rather than by a person of Abrahamic monotheism, which lays so much of stress on a single God, but fails to see how different names of the God have to be necessarily meant for the same divinity.

  12. 12
    Chiara Said:
    January:15:2010 - 05:13 

    Daisy in # 12–there are a number of logical fallacies in your argument. Malay Muslims are prevented from apostasy by their religion first, and their government only secondarily. No doubt there is a political issue on all sides about the use of the term “Allah”; and of course words, their meanings, usuages, and linguistic origins are germaine to any discussion and one in English here and in the Malay media about riots over the use of the word Allah in a Malay text. Understanding the contemporary connotations of the word, and the historical roots of their implications in the Malay context is also germaine to the discussion.

    Perhaps you should put down your self-imposed burden of explaining monotheism to monotheists, as amusing a post-colonial feminist reverse white man’s burden as it is. (I am in favour of being past colonialism, and of feminism, or at least certain forms of it, lest I be misunderstood, misinterpreted, miscontextualized.)

  13. 13
    Daisy Said:
    January:15:2010 - 12:24 

    I don’t have any self-imposed burden and am not following any “isms” for that matter. I was just pointing out how the people who think of themselves monotheists can even postulate that different names for God may signify different deities. One expects monotheists to understand this concept better than anyone else.

  14. 14
    Chiara Said:
    January:15:2010 - 14:45 

    I didn’t suggest that you were following any -isms, only that you seemed to lament your self-imposed obligation to explain monotheism to monotheists who had failed to do so. One does get the sense, in #14, again, that you are really talking about the failure of Islam mainly, but perhaps the other Abrahamic religions as well, to sufficiently understand Hinduism as essentially monotheistic as well, and worthy of marriageability for Muslims.

  15. 15
    Daisy Said:
    January:15:2010 - 19:32 

    No, Hinduism is not essentially monotheism either – I don’t imply that. Monotheism is one out of many strands of it. And I am not talking about the inability of Abrahamic religions to sufficiently understand Hinduism, I am talking about the failure of Abrahamic religions to sufficiently understand the concept of a single God. Hinduism is not the point of debate here, there is no reason why anyone on this blog should try to understand it. There is no question of Hinduism being worthy of marriageability for Muslims – it’s a very different kind of religion than the Abrahmic religions and Hindus don’t expect anyone to become marriageable to them.

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