HONG KONG — An ad shown on the BBC and CNN channels portrays a Caucasian couple frolicking in a paradise on Earth, enjoying jungle greens filtered through dancing sunlight, scantily clad on a pristine golden beach undisturbed except by turtle tracks, snorkeling through vivid clear blue underwater life, visiting old Chinese and Hindu temples, dancing with colorfully costumed natives, shopping until they drop in a modern mall and eating local food. There is a catchy tune: “Malaysia, truly Asia.”
Yes, Malaysia has many of the blessings of a paradise. It is a rich fertile land producing an array of commodities including rice, rubber, palm oil, timber as well as oil and gas. Its well-educated 27 million people of Malay, Chinese and Indian origins live comfortably in a country whose area is 15 percent smaller than Japan. But today Malaysia resembles paradise after the Fall — and human beings are tearing it apart.
A few decades ago the problem was race that pitted the richer Chinese against the majority Malays. Today it is the politics of religion and, in particular, who can use the name “Allah.”
The latest dispute has seen at least nine Christian churches attacked and firebombed in the past two weeks, demonstrations in the streets and in mosques against a court ruling favoring the Catholic Church, a Facebook campaign that has collected more than 120,000 supporters demanding that the use of “Allah” be restricted to Muslims.
The complex, Malay-led, coalition government has appealed the ruling of the High Court that Catholics in their prayers and Bibles in the Bahasa Malaysia language can use the word “Allah” when referring to God.
The government itself triggered the dispute. In 2007 the home ministry forbade the Catholic newspaper, the Herald, from using “Allah” in its local language edition. Subsequently, the government has several times impounded Bibles that use “Allah” for God, and seized a private collection of compact discs of Christian religious teachings, with “Allah” written on them.
The High Court judgment on Dec. 31 was a response to the appeal by the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Murphy Pakiam, as publisher of the Herald, against the ban on the use of “Allah.” Justice Lau Bee Lan declared that the Catholic newspaper had a constitutional right to use the word “Allah”: “Even though Islam is the federal religion, it does not empower the respondents to prohibit the use of the word,” she ruled.
The Herald had argued that “‘Allah” for “God” is an Arabic word that predates Islam itself and is widely used in the Holy Land and neighboring countries by Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, the use of “Allah” goes back to a translation by Francis Xavier in the 16th century. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world in population (85 percent of the 240 million people), all religions use “Allah” for “God” without any objection.
The immediate Catholic reaction was one of relief. Jesuit priest Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, said, “It is a day of justice and we can say right now that we are citizens of one nation.”
But a few days later, confronted with hacker attacks against the Herald’s Web site and the orchestrated campaign against Christian use of “Allah,” Andrew was quoted as saying, “We believe these actions (are designed) to create a climate of fear and a perceived threat to national security so as to pressure the court to reverse its decision.”
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak called for calm, but said he was helpless to stop protests against the use of “Allah,” a weak approach compared with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s instruction to supporters not to join the protests.
Among those who signed the Facebook protest was Mukhriz Mahathir, deputy trade minister and the son of long-serving former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, although Mahathir’s daughter Marina described critics of the court decision as “idiots.”
Pressures are growing to get the Christians to back down or to compromise, perhaps by using the word “Tuhan,” meaning “Lord,” suggested one Christian pastor.
Muslim groups claim that the Catholic Church is trying to get unsuspecting Muslims to convert to Christianity by using the lure of “Allah,” a ludicrous claim considering that it is illegal for a Malay to stop being a Muslim.
This is more of a political campaign than a religious one. PAS, the supposed ultra-Islamic party, which is in the opposition, came out in support of Christians, as fellow believers in the God of Abraham, being able to use the word “Allah” for God.
When I first went to Malaysia in the 1970s to start a daily business newspaper, Malays were poorer and less educated than the rich Chinese, who along with foreigners owned most big companies. Today, thanks to decades of preferential treatment for Malays and clever political string-pulling, especially by Mahathir, Malays are in the ascendancy, numerically, economically and politically. More than 60 percent of the population is Muslim, thanks to vigorous conversions especially in Sabah and Sarawak using the sweeteners of government jobs for indigenous people who converted. Buddhists are 19 percent, Christians 9 percent and Hindus 6 percent of the population.
In the 1970s, the Barisan Nasional was a genuine coalition of the three major racial groups in which a Chinese was usually finance minister. Today the Malay party dominates the government and Malay ministers hold the powerful portfolios. For Malays, politics has been a path to riches through government largess, while the Chinese and Indians have kept their heads down and either gotten on with business or emigrated. Chinese are now 23 percent and Indians 7 percent of the population.
The electorate showed its unhappiness with the Barisan last year by denying it its traditional two-thirds majority. The weak non-Malay parties have hesitated to bolt the coalition because it might allow PAS into power, which would permit the use of “Allah” by Christians but turn Malaysia toward a more Islamic state, where fine wines and skimpy bathing suits would be banned.
The best hope might be Anwar Ibrahim, an ultra-Malay in his student days who cooled his heels in prison under the Draconian Internal Security Act before joining the ruling party and becoming finance minister and deputy to Mahathir for five years. Mahathir kicked him out and got him imprisoned on undoubtedly trumped up charges, and Anwar faces fresh sodomy charges, though the evidence is suspect.
The key role of the archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, the man who challenged the government ban, is to try to take “Allah” out of politics — a difficult and potentially dangerous task in a Muslim country.
Kevin Rafferty was founder-editor of Business Times, Malaysia, and is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.