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by Baradan Kuppusasmy

Malaysia's Islamic Hardliners Attack The Teapot Cult

(IPS) KUALA LUMPUR -- In a move that may hurt Malaysia's multi-religious social fabric the government has announced that certain Arabic words like 'Allah' cannot be used in the literature, gospel and speeches of non-Muslims faiths.

Three other commonly used words ordered excluded from non-Muslim lexicon are 'Baitullah' (House of God), 'Solat' (prayer) and 'Kaabah (Sacred House).

The decision has shocked Christians, Sikhs and Hindus, who have for centuries liberally used borrowed Arabic words in their religious practices, see the government decision as a serious infringement on their religious freedom.

While Malaysia's constitution says Islam is the 'religion of the federation' and that other faiths are freely allowed, non-Muslims increasingly fear freedom of worship is being curtailed by officials influenced by resurgent political Islam.

"Only Muslims can use (the word) Allah. It's a Muslim word. It's from the Arabic language. We cannot let other religions use it because it will confuse people," deputy minister for internal security Johari Baharum told presspersons explaining the rationale for the decision. "We cannot allow this use of 'Allah' in non-Muslim publications; nobody except Muslims (can use it). The word 'Allah' is published by the Catholics. It's not right," he said.

But followers of Sikhism -- which borrows heavily from both Islam and Hindusim and uses the word 'Allah' to refer to god -- are upset over the ban. "We have used the terms 'Allah' and 'Rahim' (most merciful) extensively in our writings and prayers to refer to God. The word Allah is used in our holy scripture," Malaysian Gurdwara Council chief Harcharan Singh told local media last week.

"Sikhs have used these terms for centuries and they are part of the Punjabi language we still use today," he said explaining the dilemma for followers of the faith, who are distinguished by their turbans and beards. "How are we going to fulfill our religious obligation if commonly used words are reserved for Muslims... I really don't know where we are heading as a nation with decisions like this," he said.

Compounding the confusion, church leaders have now filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the government for banning the import of Christian publications that contain the word 'Allah.' The suit has asked for a court ruling against any faith having exclusive right to use of any word. The case will be close watched by Malaysians and foreigners, including investors who fear that the country is sliding into a Taliban-style theocracy.

Although filed on Dec 10, by the Sidang Injil Borneo, the leading church in Sabah on Borneo island, it is supported by Malaysia's estimated two million Christians.

Malaysia's religious divide exploded into the open after hundreds of thousands of Hindus demonstrated on Nov. 25 demanding a larger share of the national wealth and an end to temple demolitions.

Muslim fears that Christians have ulterior motives in using Arabic words appear to be at the core of the government move.

"There is fear that the use of Arabic words common to Muslims and Christians aids proselytising," a Muslim cleric told IPS, asking not to be identified. "Muslims have long feared Christian proselytising and the fear surfaced strongly after the Lina Joy case," the cleric added referring to the case of a Malay woman Azalina Jailani who converted to Christianity and was the subject of a brutal legal tussle that ended last year with the highest federal court ruling that Malaysia's Muslims cannot leave their faith.

Since then other cases have flared up between Muslims and non-Muslims involving such issues as conversion, division of property and claims over dead bodies and the rites for their disposal.

Neither the courts nor the political establishment, fearful of a backlash from conservative Muslims, have offered a just and lasting solution.

To quell Muslims apprehensions, church leaders have explained that disputed Arabic words are used only in Christian publications that are exclusively used by non-Muslims and further that the words are used in sermons inside churches.

It is an offence to proselytise among Muslims and punishment may include a fine or jail term. Instances of Muslims converting to other religions are rare compared to the 7,000 odd non-Muslims who convert to Islam annually. In addition a large state-funded Muslim bureaucracy assists converts to Islam, taking care of their welfare and helping them adjust psychologically to a new life as Muslims.

Church leaders say the ban on the use of certain Arabic words is hurting the country's international image as a moderate and inclusive plural society.

In a statement the Christian Federation of Malaysia, the umbrella body for Christians, expressed "deep disappointment and regret" at the decision of the government. "The words predate Islam and it is wrong to bar others from using them in private worship and internal Christian publications," said federation's executive secretary Rev. Herman Shastri.

"We never preach to Muslims and they should not worry," he said rejecting the government's arguments. Ramon Navaratnam, a leading secularist and head of the Center for Public Policy Studies said it was unconstitutional to ban some religion from using the words. "It is the constitutional right of Malaysian citizens to profess their own religion and using the terminology and language of their choice is part of that fundamental right," he said.

Political observers say political compulsions prompted the the government to go ahead with the ban, which is clearly unpopular with the non-Muslims minorities. With a general election around the corner, they said, the government is appeasing the conservative Muslim majority to win political support.

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Albion Monitor   January 8, 2008   (

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