(Blackboard pic by ilco / sxc.hu)
IF the church were to agree to the ban of the word “Allah” for non-Muslims, would this solve our problems? The answer is no. Religious authorities in the West Malaysian states have banned more than the word “Allah”. In Pahang and Malacca, the word “nabi” (prophet) is banned, making it impossible to have the Bible or Torah translated into Malay. In fact, the word “Injil” (Bible) is banned in 10 states, including Pahang and Selangor.
The issue here is clearly not theological, whether “Allah” in the Christian sense is same with “Allah” as Muslims understand it. Instead, the issue is highly political: Can the Malay language be used in the religious realm by any faith or belief system other than Islam?
Md Asham Ahmad, a fellow at the Centre for Syariah, Law and Political Studies, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim), expressed the apprehension of Malaysian Muslims: “Clearly what the Christians are trying to do is to deislamise the Malay language for missionary purposes.”
“Deislamisation” here means allowing the Malay language to be used by everyone, and not exclusively by Muslims alone. Underscoring this is the attempt by the Islamic authorities to define Islam and Muslims as being exclusive.
Darwin (Public domain; source: Wiki
commons) This could explain why the Indonesian-language edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is banned in Malaysia, while the English original is freely available. I cannot think of any other explanation why only Malay-speaking Malaysians need to be protected from the bad influence of the evolutionists.
Now, imagine if a Buddhist or Hindu canon was translated into Malay, or if an Indonesian-language text of such canons was imported from Java or Bali. Would the Buddhist or Hindu communities then be accused of attempting to proselytise Muslims?
The logic here is simple:
The Malay language is spoken by Malay Malaysians;
Malay Malaysians are by constitutional definition Muslim;
The Malay language therefore belongs to Muslims and should not be deislamised.
With apologies to the doctrines of the Catholic and Protestant churches, this is a trinity of Malay ethnicity, the Malay language, and Islam.
This is why “Allah” is not at all an issue in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, which practises the same form of Islam prevalent in Malaysia: the Shafie school of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam. In Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia is not a language owned exclusively by Muslims.
But Asham then asks: “If [the Christians] say it is their right to do mission to the Malay [Malaysians] … then shouldn’t we, the Malays, also claim our right to repel any effort to undermine our religious and cultural identity?”
Good question. If the Malay language is exclusively for Muslims, I suppose Malaysian Muslims do have such a right, even if this amounts to “religious protectionism”. Either that, or the Malay language is so central to the faith of Malaysian Muslims — more so than Arabic for Middle-Eastern Muslims or Hebrew for Jews.
Dante in an artist’s rendition of Inferno from The
Divine Comedy (Public domain; source: Wiki
commons) But then, two questions arise. Firstly, as Malaysian Muslims are increasingly multilingual, should “the right to repel any effort to undermine [Muslims'] religious and cultural identity” be gradually extended to cover other languages, too? For instance, should the original English edition of On the Origin of Species be banned to protect Muslims from confusion and erosion of their faith? What about Dante‘s anti-Islam classic, The Divine Comedy?
Then there is the more urgent question: Is a mono-faith Malay language tenable as the national language? In other words, if only Islam-compatible concepts are allowed in the Malay language, such that one can only learn about Islam and not other religious or atheist thoughts though the language, why should Malaysian non-Muslims learn Malay? Why not exclude non-Muslim students from Malay-language classes just as they are from Islamic studies?
If the Malay language is supposed to be the Muslim language on faith-related matters, is the promotion of it as the national language an unspoken long-term proselytising plan? Does this explain the commonplace complaint about Islamisation in Malay-medium national schools?
Interestingly, the use of Malay in East Malaysia was an issue in the 20-point agreement upon the formation of Malaysia. Therefore, the usage of “Allah” might not have become so widespread in Malaysian Borneo had the National Language Policy not been so successful there.
Tension within the constitution?
What this controversy now shows is the tension between a narrowly interpreted Article 3 (Islam as the religion of the federation) and Article 152 (Malay as the national language) of the Federal Constitution.
At a discursive level, the “Allah” controversy is simply an internal contradiction of Umno’s ideology: Malay supremacy (ketuanan Melayu). This ideology of Umno’s ethno-nationalism is built on a trinity of religious ethno-nationalism (Muslim interests), linguistic nationalism (the Malay language), and economic ethno-nationalism (special status of bumiputera in Article 153). However, one must be careful not to conclude that a person who follows any or all of these strands of nationalism is automatically an Umno supporter.
What can be concluded is that Umno’s political expediency to drum up what has been called Islamo-tribalism is not only undoing Malaysia’s reputation as a moderate Muslim country, but also undoing the national language project.
Khoo Kay Kim (Pic by Hafiz Noor Shams
/ Wiki commons)The debate on Allah should therefore be shifted from theology and semantics to nationhood and politics. The direct stakeholders here are not only Malay-speaking Malaysian Christians, from among native East Malaysians and West Malaysian Orang Asli, but also the standard bearers of Malay linguistic nationalism.
So, what are the positions of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and the Federation of Malay Writers Associations on this matter? What is the position of single-stream education proponents such as Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim? Have they given up on the necessity of an inclusive national language, or have they agreed all this while that the national language should be for Muslims only?
Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. He wonders, if languages are God’s creation, can humans claim copyright?
Read other Uncommon Sense columns