Religious violence is rare in Malaysia, and so its people are rightly alarmed at the current spate of attacks on churches, which can conjure up memories of the 1969 race riots. The government has strongly condemned the attacks, but its policy of trying to coddle its Muslim population undermines its stated goal of an open Islam and stokes the very religious tension that it wants desperately to avoid.
The violence is the latest consequence of attempts to ban the use of the word “Allah” by Christians. In 1986, the Interior Security Ministry barred the word from non-Islamic publications on the grounds that it could confuse Muslims, but the ordinance was usually not enforced. However in December 2007, the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association and the Islamic religious councils of seven states invoked it in a lawsuit against the Malay language weekly, the Catholic Herald. The government sided with the councils, saying that Christians’ use of the term “could increase tension and create confusion among Muslims.” Authorities also asked the Herald to put on its front page the word terhad, “restricted,” meaning solely for distribution to Christians.
Christians and others responded that “Allah” has been used by Christians for centuries to refer to God, including in Malaysia. No other country has such a ban; even the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) says it opposes one. “Allah,” the Arabic word for God, is used by Christians in Egypt and Syria, and, of course, neighboring Indonesia. On Dec. 31, 2009, the High Court ruled that Christians had a constitutional right to use “Allah.” The government called for calm, but quickly said it would appeal and, on January 6, the judge suspended her ruling pending an appeals court decision. Subsequently, nine churches have been attacked, most of them firebombed. There have also been attacks on the Catholic Herald’s legal team, whose offices were vandalized yesterday.
This is not the only federal government attempt to repress anything that could be perceived as deviating from the state-sanctioned version of Islam. In 2005, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi proposed that Malay-language bibles have “Not for Muslims” on the front. In 2003, the government banned publication of a Bible in Iban, an indigenous language, although the ban was later lifted. In March 2009, customs officials seized Christian books and other materials containing “Allah,” and now some 15,000 volumes have been impounded. Since Indonesian Christian books in Bahasa contain the word “Allah” they cannot be imported. The government has also rebuffed calls for a state interfaith advisory council.
The censorship is not restricted to non-Muslim material. Using guidelines issued by the Islamic Development Department and with the consent of the Shariah courts, the federal government has prohibited over 50 “deviant” interpretations of Islam, including Shiism, the faith of over 10% of the world’s Muslims. In 2007, the Internal Security Ministry banned 37 books, mostly by Muslims, after the Publications and Quranic Texts Control Division said they “twisted facts and true Islamic teachings.” In 2008, other books were banned, including “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism” by Norani Othman, published by the Malaysian Muslim women’s organization Sisters in Islam, and Amina Wadud’s “Quran and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective.”
The attempted ban on “Allah” is part of a larger government program to shield Malay Muslims from anything contrary to state Islam or that might upset or confuse them. One reason for this effort seems to be political maneuvering by the ruling party to shore up its Islamic credentials and hold onto Malay votes. But there is also genuine concern to prevent adverse Muslim reaction to different views.
However, religious tensions are increasing in Malaysia, and not only because of ethnic divides and electoral calculation. Much is tied to ongoing restrictions on conversion from Islam coupled with the writing bans themselves. These bans stoke expectations that Muslims should, or even can, be shielded from anything that might challenge their beliefs. In a global world and a modern Malaysia, this is impossible, and the resulting dashed expectations feed frustration and tension.
If the government believes, as its actions imply, that many Muslim Malays are ignorant about their faith and so are easily confused, then, rather than trying to restrict non-Muslims or different Muslims, it should call on Islamic teachers to do a better job. After all, Muslim civil servants are already required to take government-approved religion classes, and Islamic religious instruction is mandatory for Muslim children in public schools.
It should also use its persuasive powers to tell its citizens that, as members of a thriving society in a global world, their beliefs will inevitably be questioned and challenged. Malaysia’s talented population is capable of dealing with different thoughts and ideas, and does not need suffocating and self-defeating protection.
As Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian NGO of Muslim women committed to an open interpretation of Islam, says: “Ignorance is never bliss. By narrowing the space for open dialogue among citizens and squashing their quest for information and to read, the government’s 2008 banning of ‘Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism’ can be deemed as ‘promoting Jahiliah’“—the very state of religious conflict and confusion that Islam came to overcome. It would create a “suppressed world where we will blindly follow with no questions asked.”