(Pic by Adrian Van Leen / sxc.hu)
PREDICTABLE. This best sums up the reactions by some Muslim groups and the government to the High Court’s 31 Dec 2009 decision to lift the ban on the use of “Allah” by Catholic paper Herald.
Malaysians were probably able to anticipate the newspaper headlines and ensuing comments, given the usual rhetoric on race and religion in this country. After all, we have all heard the same tune before.
Same old song
“This is an insult to Islam,” said several Muslim groups during a protest in George Town, Penang.
“This can be used to confuse Muslims,” said Defence Minister and Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
“Muslims are the majority in Malaysia … The right to practise other religions peacefully means they are to be practised without eroding the peace and harmony of the official religion, Islam. This is the special position of Islam,” said Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, president of the Malaysian Muslim Lawyers Association in a Berita Harian column.
“The [Herald's] actions [in using the word 'Allah'] is akin to stirring up a hornet’s nest,” said Datuk Dr Ma’amor Osman, secretary-general of Persatuan Pengguna Islam Malaysia.
Amid all the tangential hoopla, one would hope that the government would respond responsibly and intelligently instead of playing along with the scare-mongering religious rhetoric. Instead, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his cabinet have chosen to appeal for “calm” and to let “the government deal with the matter” while it “expedites” its appeal. Najib has also been quoted as saying he will seek an audience with the Yang-di-Pertuan Agong to brief him on this issue.
An alternative scenario
How could the government and the traditional Malay-language media have responded to this issue differently? How would it have sounded if they were truly sincere about building national unity à la 1Malaysia?
What they could have said Najib, for example, could have announced that even if some Muslims disagreed with the decision, they had to abide by the rule of law.
He could have made good on his 1Malaysia concept and said that as the prime minister for all Malaysians, he must ensure that the legitimate interests of all parties are protected at all times. Indeed, he could have noted that not all Muslims disagreed with the decision. There are Muslim Malaysians who agree with the High Court decision because they understand the historical use of “Allah” that predates Islam, and because their faith isn’t as fragile as it’s made out to be by other Muslims, including the Umno leadership.
Najib could then have added that although Malay-Muslim Malaysians are the majority in some parts of the country, that does not preclude non-Muslim Malaysians from expressing themselves. It also should not prevent non-Muslims from practising their own religions in a way that they have historically done before without any fuss or threat of public disorder.
At the same time, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein could have called a press conference to say that although the ministry would exercise its right to appeal, it nevertheless respected the High Court’s decision. And while the appeal was pending, he would demonstrate this respect for the courts — one of the three pillars of government — by ensuring that the Herald would not encounter any problems with the usage of the word “Allah”.
Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan could also have weighed in and said that the police would clamp down on any violence by any group. He could also have said that as a police officer, he is bound by the court’s decision, which would be considered valid law until and unless overruled by a higher court.
(Musa pic by Ridzuan Aziz / Wiki commons)Even so, any attempted violence in relation to the case would be illegal, and the police would take prompt action should threats of violence be made or executed.
Muslim religious leaders could have advised that regardless of the race and religion of the presiding judge, she had the power to preside over the case and that due process of the law should be respected. And that even if some Muslims disagreed with her decision, that did not mean people should question her integrity and capabilities because she is a non-Muslim and non-Malay Malaysian. After all, shouldn’t any court judgement be evaluated on the merits and facts of a case, rather than the judge’s racial and religious identity?
Imagine the effect if government leaders said that Malaysians were resilient, and able to work through this issue together. Imagine if they told us, “Even if we disagree, we are one nation, and we will discuss these issues and come to a common consensus and understanding through respectful dialogue.” Imagine what the outcome could be if they stopped emphasising how very sensitive some Muslims’ feelings were and how fragile their faith was.
The only variation on the usual “sensitive” anthem has come from Rembau Member of Parliament Khairy Jamaluddin. The Umno Youth chief has at least acknowledged the existence of Catholic sensitivities and called for dialogue between the National Fatwa Council and the Catholic Herald publishers to resolve the issue. But his is a solo voice in the usual uninspiring melody of fear.
Additionally, what would it look like if the traditional media could also sing a new tune? What if instead of one-sided accounts of Muslim pressure groups purporting to speak for the Malay-Muslim majority, we instead had myriad views from different Malaysians? What if the traditional press also reported the views of Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians who agreed with the High Court’s decision?
Imagine if Utusan Malaysia wrote an editorial saying that Malay-Muslim Malaysians should respect the law and not take this issue as a personal insult. Imagine if they wrote factually about the historical use of the word “Allah”. Imagine if they noted the current use of the word by other faith communities in other Muslim countries, instead of blinding readers with threats of public disorder and chaos because Malaysian Muslims are somehow “special” in how sensitive they are.
Ceilings of a mosque (left) and a church (Pics by ctkirklees and beriliu / sxc.hu)
What is the value of 1Malaysia and all the talk about national unity if the government’s rhetoric is clearly unmatched on issues such as this “Allah” issue?
In the face of conflict and disagreement, can our leaders stand by the High Court’s decision and tell the population to grow up? Do they have the courage to speak up for minorities, even though it makes them unpopular among some groups who are bent on illogical and unconstitutional reasoning? Will our leaders have the integrity to speak honestly and truthfully about respecting a court judgement and the rights of minority groups?
Truth is, genuine reform that leads to real national unity can only happen with such leaders. For now, though, we’re stuck with the same old boring, unhelpful and ultimately destructive racial and religious tunes, no thanks to leaders who only know how to repeat the same chorus.
For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Political Islam