KUANTAN, Malaysia — Standing at the doorway of the main mosque in the east-coast city of Kuantan, Mohamed Abd Karim’s voice changes pitch, the hushed, affable tones of previous moments giving way to a forceful certainty.
“'Allah' is for Muslim only,” he says, arms and hands rigid and emphatic, where moments before they lolled by his sides.
He is discussing whether or not Christians and other religious minorities in Muslim-majority Malaysia can use the word “Allah” when referencing God in services or in literature. The term came to Malaysia many centuries ago, when Arab traders brought Islam and the Arabic language, but it was subsequently adopted by Malaysian Christians in their Malay-language literature.
In 2007, Malaysia’s Home Ministry banned a daily Catholic newspaper from using the word, on the grounds that only Muslims could use it. The Catholic Herald appealed the decision, and, in late 2009, Malaysia’s high court said that “Allah” could be used by non-Muslims, a ruling that prompted arson attacks on churches and Sikh temples and then pig heads being left in front of mosques in retaliation.
The dispute re-emerged in recent weeks, with Perkasa, a hard-line Malay group that is linked to Malaysia’s governing coalition, aiming to stage a Bible-burning event in response to one of Malaysia's opposition parties — the Chinese-Malaysian-led Democratic Action Party (DAP) — calling for Christians to be allowed to use the word “Allah” in a Christmas message. The Terry Jones in-reverse bonfire was to take place in the state of Penang, but it did not proceed in the end.
Some observers see the controversy as contrived and politicized, as Malaysia is getting ready for an election that will take place sometime in the first half of 2013, though, at the time of writing, no date had been set.
“It is more a political thing, lah,” says Gregory Francis, speaking after Sunday Mass at Kuala Lumpur’s St. John’s Cathedral. “We have had the word ‘Allah’ in the Malay Bible for a long time.” Francis is one of the 7% of Malaysians who have ancestral roots in India, a legacy of British colonial rule in both countries.
The governing National Front coalition has held office since Malaysia became independent in 1957, a longevity rarely seen in electoral democracies. However, the opposition, another coalition, had its best-ever showing in 2008 elections and, according to leader Anwar Ibrahim, is confident that it can win this time around.
The main party in the government is the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which draws its support from Muslim Malays, who make up 60% of the country’s population. The opposition is made up of People’s Justice Party, led by Anwar, the DAP — popular among the 25% of Malaysians who are of Chinese ancestry — and Malaysia’s Islamist Party, known by its Malay-language acronym PAS.
UMNO and PAS are fighting hard for the rural Muslim vote, and, to some, the re-ignited “Allah controversy” is an attempt to rouse a sense among Muslims that their faith is under attack from others.
The issue could be about forcing PAS to backpedal, given that the party, which dominates in some eastern regions of peninsular Malaysia, has said in the past that Christians and others should be allowed to use the word “Allah” in their local language Scriptures, citing history and Islamic jurisprudence. But the government has sought to capitalize. Speaking in the east-coast city of Kuala Teranganu on Feb. 23, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that a vote for the opposition would weaken Islam in Malaysia, saying that PAS had compromised Islamic principles due to its alliance with the DAP.
“When DAP belittled Islam, made statements that offended the Muslims, what did PAS do? They did nothing and bowed down to DAP leaders,” Najib said, addressing what government-linked press said was a 40,000-strong crowd.
The “Allah issue” has some Malaysians perplexed, however. “In Arabic-speaking countries, they don’t seem to have a problem when other religions use the world ‘Allah,’” says Lee Jiayi, a 23-year-old engineer and Buddhist.
The row means that the recently appointed apostolic nuncio to Malaysia, U.S.-born Archbishop Joseph Marino, will be stepping into a potentially awkward sectarian dispute, one that could spiral as political stakes rise around elections.
Archbishop Marino is the first-ever nuncio to Malaysia, a position that came about after the Holy See and Malaysia established diplomatic ties in 2011. Around 1 million Malaysians are Catholic, out of a total population approaching 29 million.
Welcoming the appointment, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib said that “Pope Benedict XVI and I vowed to work together to increase understanding between Christians and Muslims,” adding that “the appointment is a testament to this commitment. It is my hope that we can continue to build greater unity between world religions.”
But unity between world religions within Malaysia has been compromised, it seems, by the row over “Allah.”
Father Dominic Santiago is a priest at St. Francis Church in Georgetown, in Penang, where a majority of the population is Chinese-Malaysian. He says that the nuncio’s appointment is timely, but adds that the “Allah issue” affects other religions as well as Christianity.
Pointing to a statement posted near the church door, issued by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism that says any ban on use of the word “Allah” would compromise freedom of religion rights in Malaysian law, Father Santiago says that “the feeling is that we are being bullied over this, with the election in mind.”
Register correspondent Roughneen covers Southeast Asia for several publications.
He’s on twitter @simonroughneen, and his articles can be seen at SimonRoughneen.com.