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“Allah” in cyberspace

Metro Tabernacle in Kuala Lumpur, the first church that
was attacked on 8 Jan 2010 (Pic courtesy of Sivin Kit)
GENERIC term? Noun or pronoun? Conversion conspiracy or copyright? What exactly are Malaysians fighting over with regard to the “Allah” issue? And how is it all being played out in cyberspace?

A check on Facebook, Twitter, some blogs and an assortment of other sites since 8 Jan 2010 when churches started being attacked shows that the issue is far from being a singular one.

The cacophony of voices can be difficult to unravel because they are based on different arguments. So, while people are arguing about who can use “Allah” in Malaysia, what are they really angry about?

Different arguments

The first argument is one of exclusive ownership. This is tied to the theological concerns of a wide number of Muslims who find it offensive, or at least uncomfortable, to imagine “Allah” being used in the same sentence as Jesus Christ, who in Christianity is God’s begotten son. To them, Nabi Isa is the Prophet Jesus.

This may not be currently well articulated in tweets or comments across cyberspace, with most Muslims instead opting for the “Why use ‘Allah’ when you can use ‘Tuhan’?” argument. Still, underpinning this argument is the fear by some Muslims that Christians are using “Allah” in a way that could be blasphemous. Hence the need for Muslims to claim the word so they can protect its meaning.

This discomfort is clear even in quieter reflections, some of which include links to certain Christians‘ disagreement over the use of the term.

The confusion has been heightened with the government’s argument that Malaysian Muslims are angry because they are afraid “Muslims may be confused” and hence convert to Christianity. It is safe to say that most Muslims know their own faith fairly well. If anything, more non-Muslims, both local and international, seem to be in a state of confusion over the issue. I tracked a number of tweets and comments online, and found that “I don’t get it…” was a popular start or end of tweets circulating.

Many do not understand the fuss, are looking for more information about the religious terms, or are puzzled as to why so many are upset over the issue. There are, in fact, many non-Muslims who are not Christians who are scratching their heads over why Christians would want to use the term “Allah” in the first place.

The second argument on cyberspace is about freedoms and the constitution. Many comments from Muslims against the use of the term by non-Muslims have expressed anger that this religious issue was taken up to court. “This is not the avenue for the courts!” say some groups.

(Hands by xymonau; background by CJLUC /

Several in the Facebook group Menentang Penggunaan Nama Allah Oleh Golongan Bukan Islam, for example, are blaming Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam for taking the issue to court, and see him as trying to escalate the issue. These people are clearly not interested in the debate that Christians in Sabah and Sarawak have used the term “Allah” for generations. Instead, they choose to frame the issue as one where peninsula-based Christians are supposedly and unfairly demanding the right to use “Allah”. Suspicion over Christian motives is high on their list. As is anger over what they see as provocation by Christians.

While many from the so-called liberal camp have argued that the term has been used without problems by non-Muslims in other countries, some argue that one cannot compare Malaysia to Indonesia, for example. They argue that this is because the Malay Malaysian’s racial identity is closely intertwined with their religious identity.

The third argument is related to the politics of the controversy. This is where the actions of the government, political parties and political leaders swamp the debate, making it unclear what everyone is actually frustrated about.

Many are angry that government stewardship came so late, or some argue not at all. Others point fingers at leaders of both sides of the divide for merely trying to gain political points. Yes, there were even tweets and links circulated on Pakatan Rakyat leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim‘s past comments on the issue, for which he has received flak.

There are also the conspiracy theorists who believe these acts were either committed or urged on by the current government or the opposition party, or their supporters. Go figure.

The good stuff

Not all arguments online were framed in heated, negative or despairing tones. There were also lucid and well-written appeals for calm, rationality and reason. For example, the piece by Umno Youth’s Shahril Hamdan, which took to task Akhramsyah Muammar Ubaidah Sanusi, another Umno Youth blogger, for his views.

“I’m equally confident that many Malays are willing to engage in informed discussions and dialogue to better learn about one another’s positions, rather than having to resort to violence or, dare I say, seditious acts — after all, contentious issues such as this often expose the poverty of our knowledge, not its wealth,” Shahril wrote.

Molotov cocktail (Pic by Jazavac / Dreamstime)
The best news of all? While they argued long and hard over their views on religion and politics, an overwhelming majority denounced those who had used Molotov cocktails and paint on churches, a Catholic school and a Sikh gurdwara. There were also Muslims who reached out to Christians to demonstrate that troublemakers and arsonists did not represent them. Others held peaceful gatherings, forums and patrols for churches.

God, grant me the serenity…

Going through the flood of information and comments, perhaps I could offer three quotes to help us emotionally navigate through the controversy.

Bertrand Russell once said: “Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”

While there have been different strains and levels of ferocity, one cannot deny that there are roughly three main camps of thought:

the “Christians, Don’t Use ‘Allah’!” camp;

those who think everyone should be allowed to, and

the Confused.

Ultimately, people fear what they don’t know or understand.

Another quote is Reinhold Niebuhr‘s “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Perhaps it is only natural that as human beings, we are still arguing over religion. We may never be able to change this, with it being the Mother of Irreconcilable Differences throughout history. We can certainly, however, improve the way we debate.

Most importantly, let us not argue over our constitutional freedoms; the constitution is what binds us Malaysians to our state.

Finally, let us not stimulate or provoke fears, which can be unrealistically amplified in cyberspace. As Aung San Suu Kyi once put succinctly: “Fear is not the natural state of civilised people.”

Koh Lay Chin has two twitter accounts, one public and one private. Both were equally flooded by tweets on the “Allah” controversy. Some were difficult to read, but she believes in the benefits of debate.

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17 Responses to ““Allah” in cyberspace”

  1. Azizi Khan says:

    My personal view is as follows :

    1. There is no other God but Allah.

    2. He is the most Supreme.

    …which brings me to 3.

    3. Since he is the Most Supreme, he doesn’t need me a lowly Muslim to defend his honour. I do not have the knowledge or the right to represent Him. But I can only do my best to be a better Muslim.

    4. I am not confused when someone else talks about Allah (Muslim or otherwise) because my understanding about God is firm. This is the foundation of Islam. I will be absolutely insulted if someone can claim that just because my Christian friend says “Allah”, or I happened to meet someone from the Middle East, this will distort my belief.

    Malay-Muslim Malaysians may not realise this but Indian-Muslim Malaysians use the word “Iraivar” and “Kadavul” to mean Allah, which are the same words used by Hindus. They have never been confused in anyway. Besides, Indian Muslims have been Muslims longer than Islam came to Malaya. I am sure if you ask the Chinese Muslims in China, they too use a local name in their prayers.

    Why should we fight over this. Let people use whatever name they want to connect with their God. I am humble enough to accept it.


  2. Ellese says:

    A balanced article. I’ve debated a lot on this issue recently. It now seems that people have hardened their position. A debate without empathy is meaningless. Everybody wants to win at all costs. It’s not to listen but to put others down. No more give and take like we practiced in the past. Very sad indeed.

  3. Not confused at all! says:

    God/Tuhan/Allah is for all but unfortunately every man is for himself and this selfish attitude of humankind is the root of the problem!

  4. Cdawg says:

    Great article, and well said, AK. I respect your reasoning.

  5. lawrence sii says:

    I fully support the writer’s view and I believe there is ONLY one GOD for [human]kind. I stand tall, straight & with my head & chest up when singing our national anthem, so do my children and my grandchildren. So, why we are worried with the terminology or language when addressing the one almighty & holy GOD for all? Azizi Khan has spoken loudly for Muslims with widsom. I fully respect Azizi’s interpretation. God bless us all!

  6. rosalind says:

    “Allah” can be use [by] anyone and the way the Muslims pronouce it is “O-llah” and we pronouce it as “A-llah”. […] people make peace and respect each other. Why so much trouble and unnecessary termoil as we are 1Malaysia.

  7. RX says:

    An unbiased article indeed but you forgot to mention one more camp – the narrow- minded, self-grandeur people’s camp.

    There’s a lot of arguments but there also just one big picture here. It’s about race/ ethnic/religious annihilation by the superior race/religion. The minorities cannot do anything about this. Yes, now it may be just because of a single word but tomorrow it will be the cross, or statues cannot be publicly displayed, then maybe Hindu and Buddhist temples cannot be built, then they [are] gonna make non-Muslims wear tudung and so on. I had a daughter who was last year studying in a goverment kindergarden and she was thought to pray the Muslim prayer by the teacher there. I don’t know if that is even legal. And in school, students are taught Tamadun Islam regardless of their religion, and they have to study and speak the word “Allah” out loud. Isn’t [it hypocritical of] the goverment? [I am] sick n tired of this whole issue. I think I’m migrating to other country if this goes on. MALAYSIA simply means MALAY Superior In All.

    I’m not racist toward Malay [Malaysians]. I love most of them anyway. Several of my friends and family members are Malay [Malaysians]. But what’s happening right now truly shows that the goverment is favouring only one side and it’s definitely not my side.


  8. NKB says:

    Awesome one, AK.

  9. SELVARAJOO says:

    Muslims are worried that the word will be wrongly used. Christians too, don’t have to use this word. It has become sensitive. Sometimes these things are not so important at all. Even truth because at the end of the day it all ends up in bloodshed. Our children’s future in this country is at risk. Logic does not make sense but living in peace does. Can the Christians make a sacrifice by not using this word? Christ sacrifice his life for mankind and asked God to forgive the people who crucified Him. Religion was given to man for peace and love to prevail among mankind, not to fight [over]. Prophet Mohammed showered love on the very Jews who inflicted him with pain and all these Jews became Muslims. No religion can grow with hate and fighting. It is through love and love alone that God wants us to live and experience spiritual tranquility and happiness. To love God we have to love His creatures – human beings. Plant not but the rose of love in thine heart.

  10. Aspey says:

    AK, because of what you wrote, it makes me want to believe that the majority of people are like yourself. It is the shallow minority who are making this issue so sour. I agree with Cdawg.

  11. siburp says:

    The faster the debate stops, the better it will be for 1Malaysia. Now 4Malaysias- namely Malay, Chinese, Indian and “others” are talking and 2Malaysias, West and East, are involved.

    When can there ever be 1Malaysia, Bangsa Malaysia of all races and religions as per RUKUN NEGARA? When can our differences become our economic assets, Muslims for the Middle east markets, Chinese for the Chinese markets, Indians for the Indian markets and the “Others” for the rest of the world? Only then, we do not need any crutches provided under NEP and maybe then there will be less politicking and no one will bother about ALLAH issue.

  12. pope says:

    Perhaps the Vatican’s Pope should clarify this matter as well, for once Christians never heard the Pope, – the number one authority in Catholic Christianity. [If not], some narrow-minded Christians [will] abuse Christianity. I wonder what will happen to the future of Christianity. Not only have we forgotten Aramaic, we are now mixing and matching what ever language that is convenient to some bishop and church fathers here. Sad day for Christianity.

  13. Muslim says:

    Finally a soothing article on the subject. Thanks. But I beg to differ with Lawrance Sii with regards to comments by Azizi Khan. Azizi speaks for himself. And, comment by RX should not be published if Nut Graph is really strict about their policy. RX should be censored like you did the rest who quibble like that. Unless of course, if you do agree with him.

  14. Ellese A says:

    I don’t understand why people still don’t get it. Put it like this. Azizi’s opinion is the minority. I’ve yet to meet a Muslim personally who thinks like Azizi. Mind you, my friends range from those with Islamic background to professionals from top British universities. You are absolutely wrong to dismiss our view as petty, political or fanatic. We are upset because Umno and PAS cannot take leadership on this issue. It’s very dangerous because it will have a life of its own which we can’t control.

  15. Ida Bakar says:

    Many, many years ago, a Chinese Buddhist neighbour said to me that she prayed to ” To’kong Allah ” to ensure my great-grand parents safe return from the Haj. My great-grandmother thanked her and said that Allah has indeed blessed her prayers. No confusion there, by anyone. How did we end up like this?

  16. amlan says:

    Dear Ellese A,

    If you hoped that politicians could have sorted it out, you are sorely mistaken. It’s a task for religious leaders. Try to look beyond your emotions to see if you can catch a glimpse of hidden hands. I sincerely believe your assertion that your concerns are not petty.

    See if you have a basis for your fears after all this calms down. Do your own research, not [just based on] Bible or Qur’an quotations, but start with Kelantan’s political history. Maybe then you will understand why a lot of folks on the sidelines dismiss the whole affair. Simply, the older folks trust their fellow [citizens] to continue to be wise to the ways of the politicians in power. We have the benefit of hindsight and almost bulls-eye foresight because the game is the same, and the players, too.

    There is hope yet for Malaysia. I am secretly delighted that this happened because I see great debates now (oh, ignore the juvenile ones). So many are involved, and we also finally have a channel that politicians cannot possibly censor completely.

    Hidup Malaysia. Free the oppressed… mind.

    Also see:

  17. Selvarajoo:

    The issue is that the word ‘Allah’ has been used in indigenous Christian communities for a long time. It is blended into the language as part of normal conversation and religious practice.

    Let’s presume that the church and the state agree to sacrifice the word ‘Allah’. How long will it take to create another translation of the Bible that is suitable, if it is at all legal? Will the state be able to replace all the bibles or religious literature, such as prayer books, that are potentially seized? Will a service in a local language be made illegal because old ladies aged 70 cannot suddenly change the way they have addressed God? What about materials imported from Indonesia, where ‘Allah’ is used?

    Here’s a way solution that I can see: if both the church and the state cooperate, it will take about 10-20 years for users of a language to adjust to a radical change, give or take. That is presuming that the state cooperates by not seizing materials or introducing new restrictive laws. Do the Muslims who push for this really want or care to cooperate so that 20 years of cultural change can happen and a new translation takes root, that does not make use of the word ‘Allah’?

    So is this really about the usage of the word ‘Allah’, or is there something else going on?

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