Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

MALAYSIA: Religious Intolerance Threatens Secular Foundation

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 9 2010 (IPS) - Days of simmering religious tension over a New Year’s Eve court ruling allowing Catholics to use the Arabic word ‘Allah’ to denote the Christian God have boiled over after unknown individuals tried to burn down three churches in the capital.

As the pre-dawn attacks on Jan. 7 shocked the nation, political and religious leaders, political parties and civil rights groups and activists of all faiths quickly rallied to show their revulsion and swiftly condemn the arson attempt.

In the attacks, the ground floor of the three-storey Metro Tabernacle church located in a commercial building in the leafy Desa Melawati suburb of Kuala Lumpur was gutted.

Two other attempts against two other churches were unsuccessful because the Molotov cocktail bombs thrown by unidentified youths on motorcycles failed to explode.

Although police said the attacks were amateurish, unplanned and uncoordinated, the attempt left a huge political blot impact on a society that had cherished racial and religious tolerance and compromises as a way of life.

Muslims were enraged after the High Court in Kuala Lumpur ruled on Dec. 31 that the word "Allah" was not exclusive to Muslims.

Judge Lau Bee Lan declared that citizens of other faiths, including Catholics, could now use the term because such rights were guaranteed by Articles in the Constitution providing for freedom of religion and expression.

The arson attacks, and the dispute over the ‘Allah’ word, political analyst Denison Jayasooria said, is just part of a series of divisive issues that have unsettled the multi-ethnic Malaysian society, where some 60 percent of the more than 28 million population are Muslims and the rest minority Chinese and Indians who are either Hindus, Buddhists or Christians.

In incidents in recent months Muslims demanded a Muslim woman who drank beer to be whipped. In another incident Muslims paraded a severed cow head to protest the construction of a Hindu temple near their homes, as Hindus, who consider the cow holy, watched helplessly.

"There is politics, fear of losing traditional rights, privileges and status behind all of these incidents," Jayasooria told IPS. But the arson attack on the churches, everyone agrees, had crossed a line that not been reached in the country before.

"The attacks wound our society deeply… (they crossed) a line we have not seen before," said Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar, an organisation of legal practitioners. "It is very worrying."

"We unequivocally denounce all violence and bigotry against any faith, including its believers and places of worship," he told IPS. "The attacks are totally deplorable and show intolerance, demonstrate a negative and worrying trend towards extreme disrespect and prejudice."

"This is shocking and offensive, and we condemn it as indecent and unacceptable," he said of last Thursday’s incident, giving voice to how Malaysians in general feel about the attacks on the church.

The issue of the Christians’ right to use the Arabic ‘Allah’ for the Christian God first emerged in 2007 when the Home Ministry forbade Catholics from using the word in their Malay-language magazine, ‘The Herald’ . The Herald, a publication of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, filed a lawsuit in 2007 seeking a ruling on the prohibition.

Catholics question the prohibition, arguing they had used the word for decades and without problems. They said it was a word commonly used in the Middle East for ‘God’ and predated Islam.

The government, conceding to pressure from Muslim conservatives, argued that the word referred to the Muslim god and therefore Christians and other faiths had no right to use the word.

"Why are the Christians claiming Allah?" is a question frequently asked by Muslims in Malay-language publications, at forums and seminars and in periodicals in the months before the arson attempts.

It was never adequately answered, and ordinary Muslims were left with an aggrieved feeling that Christians were "encroaching" into "areas that are reserved for Islam."

Muslims expressed shock after the judgment was first made. Prominent Muslim clerics, lawmakers and even ministers questioned its soundness.

Following widespread Muslim protest over the Dec. 31 ruling, the judge granted a stay order on her ruling on Jan. 7. The same day, the government appealed to overturn the ruling to the higher Court of Appeal.

"The judgment is a mistake," declared Nazri Aziz, minister overseeing Parliamentary Affairs, expressing the general view held by Muslims that the judgment had erred by declaring Christians could use the word ‘Allah’.

A few moderate Muslims, who bravely urged Muslims to respect the law and the independence of the judiciary and who said the word ‘Allah’ does not belong to any one religion, were all shouted down as "traitors."

Prime Minister Najib Razak urged calm and assured Muslims his administration would act to reverse the fallout. But arson attacks on the churches have complicated attempts to end the ‘Allah’ dispute and heal the wounds and narrow the widening divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in this South-east Asian country.

"We need to get the Muslim and leaders of other faiths together. They need to meet face to face and work out a compromise and not let this thing escalate. Constant and healthy inter-faith dialogue is the answer," said Malaysian Bar’s Kesavan.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

harry potter epub