(Image courtesy of Mob's Crib blog)
by Philip Bowring
Read here for more in New York Times
One ought to be able to laugh at the absurdity of it. But the message is one of ignorance, religious and racial prejudice and political opportunism.
Last week, the Malaysian government declared that Christians in one part of the country could use “Allah” as the word for God when speaking Malay, but that those in most of the country could not.
This is the same government that is currently running a public relations campaign called One Malaysia emphasizing the common identity of the nation’s racial and religious mix.
In reality, a government dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is using spurious religious/linguistic arguments to shore up its support among a majority MALAY electorate, which has been fed for years with preferences and privileges.
Meanwhile, NON-Malay money and talent exits the country.
The government had earlier tried to stop the use of the word Allah by all Christians. This was successfully challenged in the High Court.
But instead of letting the matter rest, the government declined to back down, setting the scene for the fire bombing of churches. While these could not be laid directly at the door of UMNO, hotheads in the party may well have taken their cue from what non-Muslims see as a deliberate attempt to stir up ethnic/religious issues for political gain.
Last year it was Hindus who were the target of Malay provocation.
UMNO political calculation demands that the organization sticks to its demands about the use of the word Allah in peninsular Malaysia, where all Malays are deemed Muslims and where Christians are ethnic Chinese or Indian, but not in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak where there are large communities of Malay-speaking Christians. The UMNO-led coalition needs the support of the multi-ethnic parties in those states.
The word Allah has always been used without Muslim objection by Christians in the Arab world, as well as those in Malay-speaking Indonesia, where there are 10 times as many Muslims as in Malaysia. The word is itself derived from pre-Islamic Semitic language roots.
Even Malaysia’s strictly Islamist opposition party, Parti Islam (PAS), agrees that all Abrahamic faiths are entitled to use the word Allah.
But such facts are of little relevance to UMNO politicians determined to drum up any issue that can be used to show their commitment to defending Malay and Muslim privileges and thus retain the support of a Malay majority against the appeal both of PAS and the multi-ethnic Keadilan party of the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
UMNO cannot claim to be a party of the pious. Half a century in power has turned it into a vast patronage machine that enriches the Malay elite, providing support for luxurious lifestyles. Its insistence that all Malays are Muslims (and cannot convert) is an attempt to give religious backing to the message of Malay racial preference.
That is barely in accord with the universalist notions of global Islam but keeps the loyalty of many Malays otherwise resentful of growing income gaps.
However, the racial and religious divides among the opposition still make an UMNO-led government seem a better choice than the alternatives — most likely ones in which the fundamentalism of PAS would replace the opportunism of UMNO. So despite the deterioration of communal relations in peninsular Malaysia, no major changes are in sight.
This carries two main dangers.
The first is the continuing large scale exodus of capital and of talented non-Malays.
Five years of generally good prices for its main commodity exports, oil, gas and palm oil, have delivered huge trade surpluses and a current account surplus of more than 10 percent of gross domestic product. But economic growth has been slow due to very weak private investment, only partly offset by large government deficit spending.
Once a major recipient of foreign capital, Malaysia is now a source of flight capital. This is only sustainable while commodity prices remain at double levels of five years ago and three times those in 2002.
A longer term danger, at least as perceived by some leading Malays, such as the former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh, is that a combination of religious intolerance and resentment of federal exploitation of their natural resources will generate secessionism in the Borneo states.
They joined Malaysia in 1963 without much enthusiasm but as the best option open to them as the British withdrew from empire. They do not want their traditions of racial and religious diversity to be poisoned by peninsular prejudices. Their separate treatment on the Allah issue will have some immediate benefits for Kuala Lumpur, but can only underscore just how different they are.
In short, the episode is sad commentary on a nation whose mix of races, its fine infrastructure and wealth of resources has held such promise.
If only there really were One Malaysia.
From Al-Jazeera Website
Malaysia Still Dodging the Issue
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Malaysia's Home Ministry held a briefing for foreign diplomats on Monday to try to ease their concerns about the recent spate of attacks on Christian churches.
But rather than offering a rational explanation of what exactly the Government is trying to achieve with its attempts to limit the use of the word Allah, the diplomats heard this:
Our landscape is different from other countries. Malays here are different from other countries.So said Home Ministry secretary, Gen. Mahmood Adam.
And he may well be right about that, but he was still avoiding the issue.
Because the one fact that the Government still refuses to acknowledge is that the essence of this controversy lies not in the nature of Malaysia's culture, but in the direct actions of its Government.
It was the Government, NOT the people, that introduced legislation establishing the principle that the word Allah is exclusive to Islam.
(A claim that has been convincingly debunked by numerous experts. Here's one succinct explanation.)
What's especially comical is that even Malaysia's own Islamic leaders don't agree with the Government.
... based on Islamic principles, the use of the word Allah by the people of the Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism, is acceptable
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (a Muslim) concurs:
With respect to the use of the word Allah, it cannot be disputed that Arabic speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews have collectively prayed to God as Allah throughout the last fourteen centuries.
While sensitivities over its usage have arisen in Malaysia, the way to resolve these conflicts is not by burning churches and staging incendiary protests but by reasoned engagement and interreligious dialogue.
Bizarrely, the consistent calls for dialogue over issues of religious sensitivities continue to go unheeded. (The Jakarta Post expresses similar concerns about the situation in Indonesia here.)
And all the while that Malaysia's Home Ministry continues to maintain the fiction that somehow its position is the Malaysian people's position, it is truly missing the wood for the trees.
Because once this particular issue fades away, what will inevitably be left behind in the minds of foreign diplomats - and investors - will be another paragraph in the catalogue of niggling entries that mark Malaysia as a "risk", a country increasingly unable to reconcile its religious and racial communities, thanks in large part to tone-deaf government.
The Huffington Post is a liberal American news website
Rising Extremism in South East Asia: Dangerous Repurcussions
(Saad Khan is a freelance journalist from Islamabad, Pakistan)
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Chickens are finally coming home to roost in South East Asia. Christians are being attacked in Malaysia and their churches being burnt down. The seemingly unending scuffle over the name of Allah has imploded the fragile society of Malaysia that is already teeming with racial disputes.
The rising violence should not be any surprise to anyone as Malaysia has emerged as the new center of Islamic extremism. The region is home to the largest concentration of Muslims after South Asia and they cannot remain aloof from the rising tide of militancy in other parts of the Muslim World.
Although it was a court ruling that stirred the recent spate of rioting, Malaysia and Indonesia are not immune to Islamic extremism.
Malaysia, in particular, has become the hotbed of extremism and exporting it to Indonesia and Brunei. It was even before the 2002 Bali bombings when extremists from Indonesia and Malaysia started interacting with their counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Hundreds of Malaysian and Indonesians participated in the Afghan Jihad during 1980s and they maintained their contacts after the withdrawal of Soviet forces.
Unlike their Afghan and Arab counterparts, Indonesian and Malaysian militants were relatively more assimilated into their respective societies and did not face any major repercussions. There were, however, other forces in the region that were not ready to tolerate the pluralistic and relatively moderate societies of South East Asia.
The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party has become an important player in this game. Although it is losing political power -- with just seven seats in national parliament down from 27 in 1999 elections -- its leaders have shored up their support for Islamic extremists. A faction of the party is even against the democratic process.
Although it veered off from its usual stance and supported the court ruling, many party leaders would be happier with the recent attacks.
Indonesians have also rejected Islamic parties in polls but it does not mean that they have lost their support. Conservative Islamic parties around the world are eschewing from the democratic process for a more hard line approach.
Jamaat, Prosperous Justice Party, PAS or any other Islamic party in other parts of the Muslim World has never enjoyed a mass popularity. Some of them maintain active links with extremist outfits while others offer a more shrouded assistance to extremist groups.
Pakistan has become the hotbed of Islamic extremism and its main exporter but Indonesia and Malaysia should not follow the same path. Apart from the racial and geopolitical situation, which calls for a pluralistic secular society in these countries, these countries are located in a region that cannot afford any other crisis.
The row over use of Allah should come to an end in a peaceful manner.
Allah is for everyone and Malaysian Muslims have no right to claim ownership of this word.