Malaysian churches attacked over "Allah"
January 10, 2010 9:20 PM   Subscribe

Malaysian Catholic newspaper Herald was recently involved in a major lawsuit against the Malaysian government, stating that their constitutional rights were violated when they were stripped of their license to publish in East Malaysian indigenous language Kadazandusun. The ruling was overturned, amidst support by state ministers and protests by the Government, the Islamic Opposition party, and Muslim activists - some of whom have spent the past week attacking churches and convents through firebombs, Molotov cocktails, paint, and bricks thrown at glass.

The Malaysian Prime Minister and the Islamic Opposition party have decried the attacks, with the Inspector-General of Police stating that it was the work of "emotional persons". Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the King of Malaysia urged the public to keep calm, while the current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak hits backs against claims that his party, UMNO, is racist, stating that his 1Malaysia policy will remain intact.

This claim has come under suspicion, following the Home Minister's statement that he would allow protests over the ruling (which he has since refuted.) Malaysian political veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah claims that UMNO is fanning intolerant and racist sentiments, playing on the complicated political position of Malay Muslims in Malaysian society.

Meanwhile, with civil society groups protesting the arson attacks, Muslims volunteering to provide more security to Christians, and the hacking of the Judiciary website, the ruling allowing Herald to use the word "Allah" has been overturned, claiming possible "racial conflict". Some have scoffed the idea that Malay Muslims are under threat - "the suraus and masjids have not been bombed" - while Malaysian Christians remain fearful and wary, though Sunday Mass proceeded as usual.

The IGP has warned against further speculation and claims stern action against further attacks. Indonesian Muslims were told not to copy the attacks, while the Malaysian government plans to hold an inter-faith dialogue and may use the Internal Security Act (detention without trial for anyone suspected of "threatening national security"). The Tourism Ministry fears this will affect the Malaysian tourism industry, some observers are baffled over the whole debacle, while some others feel that the Christian community got what they deserved.

In the midst of this highly challenging and volatile time, with some fearing the return of May 13 riots, there are reminders of other unresolved Malaysian issues, including a possible coverup of controversial submarine purchases.
posted by divabat (23 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Despite what it seems, IMHO it's not about Islam or Christianity at all, it's about language and racial identity and the protection thereof. Which was also what the May 13 riots were about, and a whole lot of other things.

Some things still haven't changed. =/
posted by Xany at 9:49 PM on January 10, 2010

Correction from a friend: "the High Court decision wasn't overturned, it's been suspended pending an appeal, which is an entirely different beast."
posted by divabat at 10:19 PM on January 10, 2010

From Marina Mahathir (Mahathir Mohamad's daughter and busy activist): Confident people do not get confused.
posted by divabat at 11:34 PM on January 10, 2010

I know I'm going to sound like an insensitive dick here, but unless I miscounted there are 49 separate links in your post. I appreciate that you probably care deeply about this, but the word "filter" is in the site name for a reason.
posted by hincandenza at 1:54 AM on January 11, 2010

hincandenza: I wanted to provide a proper context for this, and besides, I'm pretty sure this isn't the only heavily-linked post on MeFi. There's much that has been said on local media from either side; I've filtered the most useful and representative information for each aspect.
posted by divabat at 2:52 AM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Aside from agreeing with Xany on this, maybe a speaking MeFite could explain something to me, does Kadazandusun not have a word for god on its own? Why do the Christian groups need to translate their materials to use the borrowed Arabic word for god? Has the word allah come to replace the word for god in common use?
posted by Pollomacho at 5:15 AM on January 11, 2010

Eight Words You Can Never Say on Malaysian Christian Television:

Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits, Allah.
posted by ryanrs at 5:34 AM on January 11, 2010

I'm with hincandenza; which of these many, many links provides an decent overview of the situation?
posted by fatfrank at 6:20 AM on January 11, 2010

Huh. Just reading the post provided me with a decent overview. Thanks, divabat.
posted by mediareport at 6:54 AM on January 11, 2010

In essence -

Cause: they suspend the ruling banning a Catholic newspaper from using 'Allah' in their Malay publication (I'm not sure what this has to do with the Kadazandusun language, but I hadn't been following until this point).
Effect: churches get attacked. Prime Minister Najib Razak pledges money to rebuild. More churches attacked. I think the current total is 8 churches hit in some manner or another but I'm not 100% sure on this.

+ a whole lot of condemnation against the attacks, a few "they had it coming!!"-type comments, racial tension fears, deeper analysis on the complex motivations for both the usage of the word and the reaction to it, and so on. I'm summarising and generalising a lot here, but the OP has plenty of detail already.

It boils down to this: the various racial communities in Malaysia are very protective of what they perceive to be 'theirs', and sometimes this clashes with what other communities perceive to be what 'should belong to all'. Again, IMHO, this has nothing really to do with religion.
posted by Xany at 7:01 AM on January 11, 2010

I agree with Xany, this is just the latest incident of a long line of racial issues in Malaysia. My wife's family left Malaysia for Canada in the mid-1970s when she was 4 years old, shortly after my FIL narrowly escaped being killed by a machete wielding mob in Kuala Lumpur. Lack of tolerance for those who are different to you and perceived injustices are at fault.
posted by arcticseal at 8:11 AM on January 11, 2010

What's silly about this is that Arab Christians have used the word "Allah" for centuries.

Right, it's simply Arabic for god, Arab Jews and Hindus and Scientologists and Atheists use the word too. That's what prompted me to ask what is the Malay word for god? Since they are such a majority muslim have they dropped that word in favor of allah for general use? Seems that this must be the case otherwise this would be a non-issue.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:37 AM on January 11, 2010

Xany - Yeah, had got that bit.

Was curious why the Catholic newspaper had been banned from using using the "Allah" in the Kadazan language in the first place, something that wasn't clear from the first few links I looked at.

Is the muslim governement trying to surpress some minority or other that exclusively uses that language? Is this a bunch of muslim clerics getting their knickers in a twist over some pervieced slight? Or is this just one bunch of dicks being dickish to another bunch of dicks for the sake of being dicks?

There really isn't a lot of why in those links, just a whole load of newspaper reports giving the what, where and when.
posted by fatfrank at 8:44 AM on January 11, 2010

I know I'm going to sound like an insensitive dick here, but unless I miscounted there are 49 separate links in your post. I appreciate that you probably care deeply about this, but the word "filter" is in the site name for a reason.

Actually I just forwarded this post to several friends and family members under the heading "This is why I love metafilter." I got the overview of the situation reading the nytimes over the weekend. I come to metafilter precisely to find a multiplicity of sources well-curated for me on a given subject.

Thank you, divabat.
posted by jrb223 at 9:01 AM on January 11, 2010

Some people prefer big posts full of links, others prefer single-link posts pointing at a particular thing. Both are fine and simply a matter of preference.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:00 AM on January 11, 2010

Pollomancho: East Malaysian Christians have been using "Allah" as their word for God before they even joined Malaysia (in 1963). The West Malaysian Malays are upset that their translations of the Bible across the Straits of China include the word "Allah" - they claim it will confuse people and implies a hidden agenda of converting Muslims to Christians.
posted by divabat at 12:30 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

fatfrank: The "why" is still speculative at this point. One link mentions the possibility of "racial disunity" (yes, because blowing up churches does nothing), and everyone else thinks it's a conspiracy to proselytize, or it's efforts by the ruling Government to control the masses now that they're losing their grip.
posted by divabat at 12:32 PM on January 11, 2010

What led to the church attacks? It's mostly under a paywall, but here's the free content:
A long lighted fuse led to the fire bombings. These were not isolated events done on sudden impulse. This was a part of the political calculus of racist and religiously bigoted leaders to drive home to their opponents that they can at any time incite their followers to whatever actions necessary to demonstrate their might and power.

This was a result of the long time pandering by Umno leaders to the extreme religious right wing. This was a predictable outcome given the mantra fed by some of the country's leaders to the Malays Muslims that they are a privileged and protected community, not subject to the laws and norms of our country when their 'interests come under threat'.

This will continue to be a burning fuse kept alight by extremists feeding the public the delusion that Islam in Malaysia is faced by all kinds of imaginary enemies.
Also, an interview with one of the church-goers of one of the bombed churches.
posted by divabat at 12:46 PM on January 11, 2010

East Malaysian Christians have been using "Allah" as their word for God before they even joined Malaysia (in 1963). The West Malaysian Malays are upset that their translations of the Bible across the Straits of China include the word "Allah" - they claim it will confuse people and implies a hidden agenda of converting Muslims to Christians.

OK, that's a start, but if they are largely ethnic Chinese and Eastern Malay Christians, why not use the Chinese or Eastern Malay word? In their translations for use in Western Malaysia, why not use the Western Malay word? What makes them use the Arabic word since Arabic has nothing to do with their ethnicity or religion?

I'm not arguing that the claims of prostelization are true (nor that they justify violence), but their argument does make sense without explanation for why they use that term in the first place. The coice of terms would make more sense if it is because the abundance of muslims has made Allah a more commonly used and understandable term.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:59 PM on January 11, 2010

Pollomacho: My attempt at explaining the language question

Malay is the official language in Malaysia - to reach the widest proportion of people, Bibles and publications and sermons need to be delivered in Malay. Converting Muslims to Christianity is illegal in Malaysia, which is (IMO) the root cause of this controversy. Note that no similar controversy has arisen over the use / misuse of God in other languages - any of the Chinese dialects, Hindi, or local indigenous languages.

In Malay, Allah means God. Yes Allah is Malay word borrowed word from Arabic - every language borrows words from other languages. Allah was used by Arab Christians to mean Elohim. Remember, there were Arab Christians before there was Islam.

Whereas, Tuhan was used to mean Lord, or Master. While we may use them interchangably in colloquial use to refer to the same supreme being (Dear Lord, or Dear God), the meaning of the word is different. See how in English we can say our Lord God (to mean God, our Lord).


A few months ago a mob of Muslims protesting at an Indian temple decapitated a cow (the Indian's sacred animal) and brought the head along to stamp and spit on.

Personally, I would have thought the smart thing to do would be for the Muslims to finish off their fight with the Jews first, before moving on the Christians, then hitting the Hindus on the way out. Rather than, you know, fighting everyone at once.
posted by xdvesper at 2:39 PM on January 11, 2010

Pollomancho: I asked some of my friends your questions and these are their responses:

Seriously. Annoyed. The East M'sians have been using Allah for the last 300 years. Can't they deal with it?

'Aiya, just use Tuhan/God/Awesomesaucelah'

Well screw that. There's history about the word. Anyone who studies linguistics will understand how a word can wrap itself into a culture and its consciousness.... See More

For the Lunbawang, Allah is the word for God in their native tongue. Are you going to ask them to stop using it too?

No, it is NOT as easy as making them use Kinoingan or whatever instead of Allah. For three centuries, they have thought, dreamed and referred to God as Allah. We cannot back down else you know what will happen next? They will use the judgement to blame using Allah in Christian worship services. Then it will become banning Malay services.

And it will go on. Oh it makes me just so mad.
I think the answer is simple: There's probably no such word in either language anyway. That's why it has to adopt a foreign word. It happens in practically every language and that alone is nothing new.
We don't have any Malay-translated Bibles here, so all of it is imported from Indonesia, which uses the word ALLAH for God. As we don't have any Malay Bibles, we use the closest equivalent, which is Indonesia.
(Note: In Indonesia, Christians can use "Allah" in their Bibles without any issues.)
posted by divabat at 9:36 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine who's (at least part) East Malaysian Indigenous (*not* Malay - different beast) and from a Muslim background wrote about the complexities of being East Malaysian and Muslim and answers Pollomancho's question.
posted by divabat at 10:15 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Couple of things:
1) When I was in KL, an acquaintance (a Bangladeshi, for those keeping score) explained growing radicalization in Malaysia thus: Before Anwar Ibrahim, not a single wife of any cabinet minister wore the tudung (hijab for non-Malay-speaking folk). After Anwar Ibrahim, you can't become a cabinet minister unless your wife wears the tudung. (I have no real comments on that - personally aware that you can be racially-agnostic while wearing the tudung - but it was an interesting formulation nevertheless)

2) Interesting that there's a Borneo - Peninsular Malaysia split in this. I've always felt Sabah and Sarawak are a lot more inclusive than Peninsular Malaysia for a variety of reasons, starting from the dialect onwards; didn't realize that East-Malaysian liberalism had a role in here.

But yes, the "got what they deserved" link is chillingly familiar to some of the inter-ethnic material coming out of south India lately. It's the same old depressing tale everywhere isn't it.
A few months ago a mob of Muslims protesting at an Indian temple decapitated a cow (the Indian's sacred animal) and brought the head along to stamp and spit on.
Heh, I happened to be in that part of the Klang valley on a lazy Saturday afternoon in search of a highly recommended second-hand bookstore. After an hour of trekking through the old by-lanes, we eventually located the shop, but found it locked from the inside even though there clearly were people inside. Surprised, we knocked at the door and asked if the shop was open; the friendly owner came out, profusely apologized for locking the door, but then quickly blamed the events leading from the "march" for causing concern in the neighbourhood. Having read briefly about some political demonstration in the local papers, I asked him what march. He shook his head, asked me if I was from India (I am) and said I could stay in the shop for as long as I wanted. And then locked the door after I stepped inside.

It was only on my trip back to Singapore that I finally figured out what was happening; the next Friday's Straits Times ran a helpful summary of the events leading to the protests. (Turned out there was some counter-protest by Indian/ Hindu groups when I went to that bookstore.)
posted by the cydonian at 7:35 AM on January 12, 2010

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