Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The "Allah" issue - an East Malaysian viewpoint

As an East Malaysian, I am neither surprised nor angry about Malay/Muslims being up in arms over the 'Allah' High Court ruling.

It was to be expected, really.

What does anger me is getting comments from West Malaysian Christians that it is 'silly' for Christians to lobby to use the word 'Allah'.

One rather un-enlightened Christian said that "Allah is also a word used to describe one particular god in a pagan for Christians to use 'Allah' is strange and silly."

The whole 'Allah' debacle highlights a bigger, more endemic problem in the Malaysian, or should I say West Malaysian mentality: General ignorance of how the 'others' or 'lain-lain' live.

It seems very hard for most West Malaysians to understand that:
  • Not all bumiputeras are Malay.
  • Not all bumiputeras are Muslim.

It isn't just West Malaysian Muslims who have a very limited worldview but Christians as well.

They don't understand that in East Malaysia, with its high population of indigenous Christians, Bahasa Malaysia is used in services.

Most of these Sabahan and Sarawakian Christians have spent their whole lives thinking, praying and referring to their God as Allah Bapa (Father God).

Allah wordAnd now the government says they can't. That only Muslims can use the word 'Allah' when that isn't true in other countries.

Look at Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, which allows the printing and dissemination of bibles in Bahasa Indonesia that refer to God not as 'Tuhan' but as 'Allah'.

The Indonesian Muslims don't worry that their brethren will be 'confused' by these bibles. So why is our Home Ministry and all these religious groups up in arms?

The answer to that is politics. Religion is, unfortunately, something as mixed up with politics as is race. Political parties unabashedly use religion as a tool to win debates, with Umno often accused of trying to 'out-Islam' PAS.

Religion is not a private matter in this country and is, instead, aired like so much dirty laundry. What other Southeast Asian country has officially sanctioned civilian peeping Toms who consider it their civic duty to weed out fornication?

Malay is our language, too

Despite the many varied ethnicities in Sabah, they have managed to get along without bloodshed or May 13-like incidents.

How have we managed it when West Malaysia's three main races mostly give each other a wide berth? It's called tolerance, people.

All Sabahans speak a slightly modified version of Malay with the funny little suffix 'bah' tagged behind a lot of words or sentences.

In rural areas, this heavily-accented version of Malay is the only means for most people to communicate with each other. They speak, think, dream and yes, even pray in the language.

Sabahan Michelle Quek asks: "Is it more important to recognise that some Muslims lay claim to the word as being exclusive to their faith, or recognise that a practical need for the word exists for East Malaysian Christians?"

christian faith 030108 crossHer question embodies the difficult balancing act that Malaysia has in attempting to address the needs of its varied peoples as well as the gulf between East and West Malaysia.

Kavin Ch'ng, who is married to a Sabahan says that locally, for many generations, Malay-speaking Christians have always referred to Allah and Tuhan in the same breath.

"Why only now does the government kick up such a fuss?" he asks. What is important, Ch'ng says, is mutual respect.

"I think there is a way to co-exist - if only our government can actually wrap its head around the concept of context."

Sarawakian El'Bornean finds it disturbing that West Malaysians now want to dictate how one's personal faith is practiced.

"The true Malaysians are here in Sabah and Sarawak," he says, citing examples of his Muslim friends who have no qualms sitting with friends in non-halal stores and visiting churches.

Despite being surrounded by Christians, East Malaysian Muslims do not consider their faith easily shaken, he asserts.

Sabahan Dusun Zara Kahan has a humorous, if facetious, solution.

"If (some) Muslims insist on ownership of the term 'Allah' then Christians must do the same with the term 'Tuhan'. Do you know how many Hari Raya songs will be in jeopardy? End of issue!"

No, we don't want to convert you

In West Malaysia, technically Christian worship services in Malay are illegal. But Sabahan and Sarawakian students ask for them anyway.

Many of these Malay-speaking East Malaysians feel uncomfortable attending worship services in English because the terms are unfamiliar. Muslims often cite the 99 names of Allah and for Christians in East Malaysia as well as Lebanon and Syria, Allah is their name for God.

All this talk about 'confusion' is really the product of West Malaysians not mixing with their East Malaysian brethren.

If you visit the Dusuns in Ranau, you could well meet locals as fair as highland Chinese with slanted eyes who would greet you with the traditional Muslim salam.

Wander into an East Malaysian Chinese coffee shop and you would see tanned, Malay-looking locals happily digging into char siew or other pork dishes

In East Malaysia, you can't easily tell what faith someone professes or what race his forefathers were just by looking.

This is very disturbing to the West Malaysian psyche. I have met West Malaysians who get very agitated when I refuse to tell them either what religion I profess or what race I am.

They don't know what to do with me because they can't categorise me. I don't fit into their safe little boxes which decide how they will treat me.

What annoys me as well is this West Malaysian paranoia that Christians have a secret ongoing campaign to convert Muslims on the sly.

council of churches malaysia forum 250407 audienceLet us be honest. If converting Muslims to Christianity was as easy as pouring holy water into your drinking water or putting the word 'Allah' in all available religious literature, the Pope would have sanctioned it years ago.

Christians don't get 'brownie points' by forcibly converting unwilling Muslims.

I suppose all the Malay-looking Christian East Malaysians really confuse the locals to the point they rabidly proclaim that churches are succeeding in their nefarious campaign to take over Muslim souls.

In East Malaysia, Christians and Muslims come in various sizes, shapes and colours. Even huge extended families often have different religions, sometimes staying under one roof.

It is not unusual for an East Malaysian to have not just Christian, but Buddhist, Muslim and animist relatives. A friend of mine says it is a convenient excuse to celebrate the many public holidays with more gusto.

When told that someone is marrying a person of another race, the common reaction is: "Oh, your kids will be cute!" No heated discussion about traditions or religious differences because the unspoken assumption is that the couple will work them out.

Because they do.

Be Malaysia, not 1Malaysia

A well-known comedian talked about the recent Al-Islam undercover foray into churches. Its so-called investigative journalists entered churches on false premises and desecrated the communion wafer.

Did the Christians protest? asked the comedian. Did they declare bloody war? Did they have angry sermons and plan noisy demonstrations outside churches on Sunday?

No. What did the Christians say? "Forgive them-
lor. Pray for them-lor."

The comedian mused that the incident was actually excellent public relations for the church.

Despite our annoyance with West Malaysian intolerance, do you see East Malaysians picketing?

We gripe, we grumble, we send politely worded statements. Yet we still believe in the Malaysia that our Tourism Ministry tries to sell, but which seems to be a myth in West Malaysia.

Do you want to know why? Deep in the heart of most East Malaysians, we truly believe in tolerance. We believe in the ideals of Malaysia.

We don't have to give 'muhibbah' a name because we live it. Since 1963, we have lived as Malaysians, believing in true tolerance and that race or religion matters little.

We truly do believe that West Malaysians can and should get over us using 'Allah' to worship God. Isn't Allah the God of all mankind? Isn't your Malaysia our Malaysia too?

Erna Mahyuni, a Sabahan, is a Malaysiakini team member.

[Source: Malaysiakini]


  1. (Part 1 of 2)

    Here we go again. Another debate about the use of words that offend others. Freedom of speech is definitely one of the most important pillars of a open society and in the long run, the best way (though not perfect) to ensure the long term growth and peace of a country. So, I do believe in absolute freedom of speech (good or bad). However, it does come with a warning.

    Note though that freedom of speech in a county like Sweden where the average citizens are well educated and have reached a level of social maturity is perfectly fine. People may agree with your opinion and if not, they are free comment without fear of prejudice, punishment, or lack of safety in any form. Try the same trick in a country like Iran, and you just might get killed immediately. Malaysia seems to lie somewhere in between.

    In your article above, you mention how East Malaysian are tolerant and are all for the ideals of Malaysia. At the same time, it is obvious that you over-generalise and paint all Western Malaysians with the same brush. So, it seems like you are angered by a mythical Western Malaysia.

    Please let me enlighten you about these few points:
    - Western Malaysians know that not bumiputeras are Muslim and not all Muslim are bumiputras.
    - We do know that there are Bahasa Malaysia Christian services there. FYI, we have them here as well.

    Let me assure you that you are not giving a good example of living "muhibah" when you attack Western Malaysians with accusations of ignorance.

    If have every visited central Kuala Lumpur any day of the week, you will certainly see that your idea that Western Malaysia as a homogeneous society is very seriously flawed. Besides Bahasa Malaysia and English, it would not be uncommon to hear various language; Burmese, Indonesian, Russian, Thai, French, Persian, Spanish. While there are a lot of tourists, there are many new immigrants from various countries who have now become Malaysians.

    Wander into an West Malaysian coffee shop and you would easily see Chinese-looking locals speaking Russian and only eating halal food. So, is he Uzbek or a Chinese native of Muslim heritage? Mmmm.

    In West Malaysia, you can't easily tell what faith someone professes or what race his forefathers were just by looking. For that matter, sometimes you can't even easily tell what language he speaks.

    So these differences are not very disturbing to the West Malaysian psyche. Anyway, why would you refuse to tell people either what religion you profess or what race you are is beyond me. I will grant you the fact that there are people who are racist even here in West Malaysia but no more than the average in any country.

    By the way, I never got the reason why as a Malaysian, I would have to register my identity at the airport as soon as I land in Sabah while an East Malaysian doesn't have to do the same anywhere in West Malaysia. Maybe you can help me explain that point.

    What you point out about freedom to use the word "Allah" in other countries is incorrect. I guarantee you a very short life if you were to proclaim that you are Christian and use the word "Allah" in countries like Iran, Afghanistan and a few others. Furthermore, if you were walk down a street in Belfast, Northern Ireland and say you Catholic in a Christian Protestant neighbourhood will result in the same fate. So, while Malaysia is not completely open, it is certainly not completely closed as you make it out to be.

    … continue to next post…

  2. (Part 2 of 2)

    … continue from previous post …

    Your example about Indonesia permitting the use of the "Allah" does not give a complete picture of the country. I am not sure about the usage of the word but I can tell you for certain that Indonesia has a very bad history of religious and racial tolerance. Note that the Indonesians did not allow any Chinese to practice any of their religions, speak Chinese or even have Chinese names. All of this up till 2000. In 1998 Indonesians killed many Chinese openly and confiscated their property simply because they felt that they were "bumiputera" and these Chinese who were in fact just people of a different skin colour had no right in the country.

    I do agree with your point though that politics is too closely linked with religion in our country. The same goes for race as well. Instead of choosing leaders based on their capability to lead and what they can do for the country as a whole, we still choose them based on race, religion, their family lives and how they might represent our specific group.

    At the end of the day, this is not really a question about the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims. Like many other problems in our country, it is merely another form control by certain political and religious leaders in our country. Some leaders still believe that by controlling all media a la 1984, they can control how people think and what the believe. History has shown though that politics and religion never mix well. It also shows that if a leaders force feeds their believes on people, they will stunt the growth of a country.

    We should as a nation always push for complete freedom of speech and instead focus on providing the best education for our children and adults. We have to build a nation of discerning adults who are able to decide the validity of what they read. That completely gets rid of the need for censorship. What we need is a united Malaysia. One that appreciates and encourages diversity, not just tolerate differences. One that is open to ideas, changes and aiming for educational, social, economic and political growth. That for me is the meaning of 1Malaysia.

  3. Anonymous, except the last paragraph of your comment, the rest is just plain nonsense. Your comparison of Indonesia is out of context. The writer is talking about one thing and youre talking about a whole different issue. About Iran and Afganistan, it is nonsense as well unless you have been there and experience first hand what you have said happened. It is presumption. Over-generalising the West Malaysian? The Sabahans cant be wrong after been there living among the different races. You are talking about KL, we know about KL. It is the capital city of Malaysia, hello. Why need to compare KL and the rest of West Malaysia? Why are you so defensive about the whole thing being written by the writer? You talk about the immigration issue which is not decided by the people. It is the privilege of Sabah when it joined Malaysia. hyou don't read your history?

    I rest my case.