THE attacks on Malaysian churches were a shocking way to start 2010. The unprecedented violence made headlines internationally as the foreign media pulled apart Malaysia’s carefully constructed image as a moderate Muslim nation. Following the attacks, there have been calls for Christians to drop their claim to refer to God as “Allah” for the sake of national harmony.
Metro Tabernacle Church in Kuala Lumpur was attacked on 8 Jan 2010 (Pic courtesy of Sivin Kit)
But should Christians back down on calling God “Allah” when they have been using “Allah” for centuries? How do Christians feel in the wake of the attacks? How should they respond?
Council of Churches of Malaysia Youth Moderator and executive council member Chrisanne Chin and Bangsar Lutheran Church pastor Rev Sivin Kit shared their views with The Nut Graph on 11 Jan 2010 in Petaling Jaya. Kit is also co-initiator of Christian advocacy website The Micah Mandate.
TNG: Why do Christians have to use “Allah” to refer to God in Bahasa Malaysia? Why can’t it be substituted with “Tuhan”?
Sivin Kit: It’s historically evident that Malaysian Christians have been using “Allah” to refer to God in our Bible translations and publications since before Independence. From the perspective of Bible translation, it is consistent with translation methodology and principles for “Allah” to be translated as God in Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia. For Sabahan and Sarawakian Christians, referring to God as “Allah” is part and parcel of the fabric of their faith life.
What is your response to the suggestion that “Allah” be used by Christians only in Sabah and Sarawak, but not in Peninsular Malaysia?
Chrisanne Chin: That’s not viable. East Malaysians come to Peninsular Malaysia to study and work. They ask for Bahasa Malaysia church services because that’s the language they’re comfortable with. They also use their Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia bibles which translate God as “Allah”.
Kit: Once we go down that path, it will raise the question of what 1Malaysia really means. Christians in Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia referring to God in different ways creates an awkward situation. It does not solve the problem. In fact, it would create even more confusion.
In the light of the attacks on churches, do you think Christians should compromise on using “Allah”?
Chin: I don’t think churches are intimidated, I don’t think they’re going to stop using “Allah”. It’s just part of language. Ibans call God “Allah Taala”, it’s part of the Iban language. You can’t say it’s Indonesian. It’s not. How can you tell an indigenous Malaysian not to use his [or her] own language? It’s a little bit ridiculous.
Kit: I think that the Christian community, and specifically the Catholic Church, is under a lot of pressure to back down. If the attacks are indeed linked, and if Christians stopped using “Allah” because of them, we would be legitimising these attacks. We would be saying this method is the right way to resolve problems. This would be sending the wrong signal. The threat of violence is not the way to pressure any particular group. We need to rise above this and intensify our efforts to sit down together and work towards a solution.
How would you advise Christians to respond to these attacks?
Chin: No need to panic, don’t be intimidated … We need to pursue what’s right. If we talk about justice, mercy and righteousness — this is the path we have to take. This opens a path to dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Christians have to rise above violence and show leadership on how to pursue this issue.
Kit: For Christians, this is an opportunity to draw spiritual resources from their faith traditions. That will help us to be firm and yet gentle in our engagement, even with those who disagree with us. This is a very important opportunity for us to really engage at a deeper level, of really respecting and understanding where each of us is coming from.
What would you like or expect from the government?
Chin: Go back to the status quo [when Christians used "Allah" freely]. We didn’t start this. It was (then Home Minister Tan Sri) Syed Hamid Albar who made that ruling in 2007 to give Herald a tough time, which has [escalated] to what it is now. He also flip-flopped on the issue.
We need good, strong leadership from the government. Be firm, don’t politicise “Allah” for the sake of Umno. Set up an interfaith commission. Allow scholars, mufti, pastors and priests to talk. It will be a good way to help educate people about how to think through and solve problems.
Kit: The government must go beyond superficial band-aid approaches. I would expect the prime minister to immediately meet church leaders and also other [religious] leaders. I also expect the government to initiate dialogues where the facts of this matter can be presented to those who have strong opinions against it.
There have been groups that were involved in the [8 Jan 2010] protests that say they want to help to protect churches. We would prefer that zeal to be transferred towards coming and sitting down at the same table to talk about this. So that they hear from us directly and understand our point of view, and not depend on misinformation from Utusan Malaysia, for example.
A private interfaith dialogue has been mooted by the government to resolve the issue. Will that work?
Kit: The problem with closed-door dialogues is it gives people a sense of secrecy and lack of transparency in the discussions. There’s a hunger for more openness. This would also be an opportunity to be bipartisan. The dialogue should include key non-governmental organisations (NGO) and Pakatan Rakyat leaders. This is a chance for the government to show leadership that goes beyond personal politics.
We should have an open and public dialogue for awareness and education where the official representatives of faith communities can state their positions.
Chin: If they are genuine about interfaith dialogue, it shouldn’t end with just dialogue. There should be an interfaith commission or council. Make it open, clarify the purpose and objectives and what they’re trying to establish. There shouldn’t just be talk to placate people, and that’s it.
Kit: People may actually be more worried about conversion rather than the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims. There have been comments, for example, on the intent and the motivation to maintain the use of “Allah” among Christians. If this is the case, we need to be able to discuss the conversion issue, which is separate from the use of “Allah”. This goes all ways, whether it’s Muslims converting to Christianity or vice versa. If there is suspicion and unhappiness on the part of either party, we need to talk about it openly and work towards some form of relating to each other.
Are the attacks and the angry responses to the 31 Dec 2009 High Court decision an indication that the relationship between Muslims and Christians has deteriorated in Malaysia?
Chin: I don’t think so. I don’t think all Muslims share the same thinking. I think Muslims and Christians still love and respect each other and this has just been exploited by some groups to the country’s detriment. We have to see ourselves first as Malaysians and work together. After 50 years of independence, it’s about time Christians and Muslims get together to talk openly about what really bugs them.
Kit: On the surface, it may appear to be a setback. Unfortunately, many may not be aware of the good relations between Muslims and Christians and people of other faiths. There have been encouraging signs such as interfaith forums organised in universities and between different faith-based NGOs.
Many Muslims actually spoke out to reject and condemn the violence. Over 120 groups, including Muslim groups, signed a joint statement within 24 hours condemning the attacks. These incidents have shown a greater willingness to improve on our relationship. I do not want to deny that there are still certain quarters who may lack contact with each other. This is an important call to wake us up, and it applies to Muslims and Christians alike.
For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Political Islam