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The Malaysian Government is totally right, of course, in its explanation that Malays in Malaysia are different from Muslims in other countries such as Indonesia. Its insistence that this difference is justification why the word Allah cannot be used by those of other religions as in Indonesia and in Arab nations are, however, spurious.
Marina Mahathir has written in her blog about how Arab nations make no fuss about Christians using the word Allah. Unspun has little knowledge about the Middle East but having grown up in Malaysia and spent 14 years in Indonesia feels somewhat qualified to examine the government’s claim that Malays in Malaysia are different from those in Indonesia. Let me count just three ways (Unspun is aware that the three points are generalizations and contain their quota of untruths but generalizations sometimes capture some truth too that may spur informed conversations, hopefully, and it is in this spirit that this post is written):
1. Malaysian Malays get all confused between race, ethnicity and religion, Indonesians don’t
In Malaysia Malays are all Muslims. If they are not Muslims then the Malaysian Constitution itself rules them out of being a Malay. They also think that Malay is a race and the more idiotic fringes think of it as a super race. Hence the term Ketuanan Melayu.
In Indonesia, everyone has no difficulty identifying themselves as Indonesians in terms of nationality but are clear about their ethnic origins. Malay is considered an ethnic group in Indonesia confined mainly to Riau and parts of Kalimantan. Others are Bataks, Sudanse, Javanese, Bugis etc, who may belong to one religion or another.
2. Malaysian Malays are insecure about themselves, Indonesians are at home in their own skins
Over four decades of affirmative action favoring the Malaysian Malays in the guise of the New Economic Policy (NEP) has resulted in some very warped psyches among the Malays. Unspun thinks it was Rehman Rashid in his book Malaysian Journey many years ago who said that at the back of the minds of many successful Malays is the nagging thought of whether they succeeded on their own steam or because of government largesse and favoritism.
On another level the Malaysian Malays that have not reaped to the full the benefits of the NEP become resentful because they see no way out of their relative meagre existences while the NEP-created Malay tycoons and politicians swish around the country in their Mercedeses and BMWs and live in palatial splendor. They are resentful and angry with the world, not least because somewhere deep down they realize that they are now slave to a handout mentality.
These factors contribute to a lot of hangups and anger, and in such a situation religion and race can be come very potential catalysts.
Of course, there are many Malaysian Malays that are cosmopolitan, liberal and top of the class but many of them end up being critics of the Government or migrate outside the country.
Indonesians, on the other hand, are very comfortable being themselves, some would argue too much so that it breeds a certain level of complacency. But the latter point is not true of the new generation of Indonesians growing up who are confident of their nationality, their ethnic roots and their capabilities. The Indonesian business scene may be a jungle but it is a rather fair jungle to all those to venture into it. Many have succeeded on their own steam and you can almost sense a new level of confidence and optimism in Indonesia today.
3. Malaysian Malays are so subjected by the authoritarian political system of Malaysia that also controls religion that there is little room for moderate religious leaders to thrive
If the Indonesian government were to be so silly as to claim that the use of the word Allah by Christians would confuse the Muslims here, they would be laughed out of town by the likes of the late Gus Dur, who, in spite of his eccentricities was a great voice for religious moderation. You would also have the Mohammadiah and Nadlathul Ulama poo-pooing the notion. In Malaysia you have PAS and UMNO trying to out Islamize each other in their efforts to court the Malay/Muslim voters. As a result no moderate religious figure or voice is able to emerge.
Government officials condemned the violence Monday but defended their position, saying conditions are different in Malaysia from those in neighboring Indonesia or in Arab nations where “Allah” is the common term for God.
“These outrageous incidents are acts of extremism and designed to weaken our diverse communities’ shared commitment to strengthen racial unity,” The Home Ministry secretary, Gen. Mahmood Adam, told reporters after briefing foreign diplomats on the situation.
“They don’t understand the situation here,” he said of the diplomats. “They just want to know why it can be allowed in other countries and not here.”
He said he told them: “Be fair, you have to compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges. Our landscape is different from other countries. Malays here are different from other countries. The landscape here is different from Indonesia so we can’t compare.”
The violence has strained relations among Malays, who are mostly Muslim and who make up 60 percent of the population, and the Chinese and Indian minorities, who are Christian, Hindu and Buddhist.
Indonesia is less divided, with Muslims making up 90 percent of its population of 240 million.
Some Muslims in Malaysia say they fear that Christians are trying to win converts by using the word “Allah.” They say Muslim believers could be confused by the use.
This Allah issue in Malaysia is getting ridiculous and dangerous – the latest developments include the firebombings of churches in Taiping.
Ironically Taiping, where Unspun grew up in the state of Perak in Malaysia, is means “Great Peace” in Chinee. It was given the name after a bloody civil war between rival Hokkien and Cantonese migrants in the tin trade. For many years since Taiping has enjoyed the serenity of its namesake and the biggest action in town when Unspun was growing up was when they installed traffic lights in the road junctions.
The firebombings last week has destroyed whatever Great Peace Taiping seems to have had. Perhaps it is a sign of the times.
In this entire hoo ha one question that needs to e asked is what is the role of the Malaysian Government playing in all this? If you will recall, it was the Malaysian Government that triggered the issue in the first place when the Home Minister forbade the Catholic Church to use the word Allah in its newsletter Herald.
When the Church successfully challenged the order in the Malaysian High Court, the Malaysian Government said it would appeal, and it did on the grounds that if the Catholics were allowed to use the word Allah there MIGHT be racial conflict.
The problem with prophecies is that they tend to be self-fulfilling. So did the Malaysian Government inadvertently suggest the idea of racial conflict or was it cynically prescient in predicting the future?
This is a question worth thinking about. But while pondering about this, what to do about the genie that is being let out of the bottle with the firebombings of the churches in KL and Taiping?
Here Malaysians should Look South and learn from the Indonesians about religious harmony. When there were riots in 1997 the more responsible Muslim groups not only did not partake in the destruction of churches and calling for calm, they actively form brigades to guard against the violent attacks of their fellow muslims against churches. How cool is that?
And for those, like the Malaysian Government, who advance the idiotic argument that the use of the word Allah by other religious groups would encourage Muslims to change their religions, they should also Look South to Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world where over 90 percent of its residents have been and remain Muslims.
Here churches use Allah freely in their sermons and in the Bibles they use, Muslims do not whip themselves into a fervor if Muslims decide to change religions, and Allah is just another word for God, whether they are of Christian, Muslim or other persuasions. And the result? No widespread defection of Muslims to other religions. Go figure!