WITH the attack of molotov cocktails on the Church of the Assumption in Penang last week, it’s not difficult to imagine that violence between Muslim and non-Muslims may just break out in Malaysia. And with such a scenario seemingly becoming more and more likely, it’s easy to believe that Christians should back down from contesting the ban on “Allah”.
Turning the other cheek and giving in, the argument goes, is the best way to avert worsening tensions. Really, who could be faulted for thinking that the swiftest way to placate those who want exclusive use of “Allah” is to give in to their demands? In the interest of cooling tempers and easing strained relations, throwing in the towel can seem tempting and logical.
Yet, there is much more at stake than the Christians’ constitutional right to peacefully worship in whatever way they choose. This fight over a word that has denoted God to both Christians and Muslims for centuries is critical for all Malaysians. Why? Because it will determine whether we subject ourselves to autocratic rule or whether we continue to live in a democracy.
How do we know that the demands for exclusive use of “Allah” is also a way to exert authoritarian rule?
Firstly, what’s happening is the increasing use of a particular kind of logic that screams tyranny. That logic is demonstrated by the argument that just because an individual or organisation or government agency says “Allah” is off limits to non-Muslims, it must automatically be so. It doesn’t matter that their arguments are flawed from a historical, theological or constitutional perspective. It also doesn’t matter that many of these parties are deliberately misleading and are out to rob fellow citizens of their constitutional rights based on fallacies.
Similarly, it’s of no consequences that many of these individuals and organisations are neither elected representatives nor entrusted with public office to be able to dictate what policies should govern the lives of non-Muslims. And, in the case of the rulers who have declared that “Allah” is exclusive to Muslims alone, it seems immaterial that their jurisdiction is firstly bound by the constitution, and secondly that their position as head of Islam in their states cannot be extended to non-Muslims.
Yet, because they say “Allah” can only be used in Malaysia by Muslims, so it must be. This is in spite of what the highest laws of the land stipulate, and no matter that in other parts of the world, Muslim clerics and theologians are perplexed over what’s happening in Malaysia.
It would seem that in this country, our lives are to be subjected and governed not by logic, intelligence, fair play, justice or fairness. Rather, our lives are to be dictated, willy nilly, by individuals and agents who have been able to expand the scope of laws, policies and public practices – even when they have neither the ability nor authority to do so.
How have they been able to exert this tyranny? They have promised violence, harassment and arrests, and demonstrated they will deliver on that promise.
We should remember that the attack on the Church of the Assumption isn’t the first time a molotov cocktail has been lobbed at a place of worship. In 2010, several churches nationwide and a Sikh gurdwara were attacked after the High Court upheld the right of the Catholic Church to use “Allah”. Three churches even suffered arson attacks, with the worst-hit being the Metro Tabernacle Church in Kuala Lumpur.
Additionally, Malaysians are being told that if they speak up for their constitutional rights, these groups, chief among them Umno and Perkasa members, will respond with threats of violence. Where’s the evidence? Catholic priest Father Lawrence Andrew has been continuously demonised and has had his safety threatened by right-wing elements including Umno Selangor, who have gone as far as to burn his effigy.
These groups are also pressuring the state to arrest Andrew for sedition, which he may be charged with as the police investigate him. His purported offence or crime that needed 100 police reports to be lodged against him? Andrew had declared that all churches in Selangor would continue to use “Allah” in their Bahasa Malaysia services because of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion for all Malaysians.
Even if Christians abide by government policy such as the 10-Point Agreement, that is not enough. The Bible Society of Malaysia was raided and ransacked, and its bibles thrown about and confiscated, despite adhering to the Home Ministry requirements for the import and publication of Malay-language bibles.
And should Malay-speaking Christians continue to worship using “Allah” as they have for generations, they can expect to do so in fear of state or non-state reprisals. Already, Muslim groups have descended on churches to demonstrate against peaceful Christians as they worship at mass.
What’s the message in all of these incidents? “Do what we say, even if it means giving up your constitutional rights as a citizen of Malaysia. And if you don’t, we’ll respond with threats, violence and attacks until you back down.” Anybody who has read or watched the history of Nazi Germany will recognise these tactics for what they are – fascism. And if we know what happened under the Third Reich, my question is, do we want the same thing for Malaysia? Do we want to be ruled by fear, threats and violence? Or do want to be ruled by rule of law, fairness, justice and constitutional guarantees to freedoms we hold dear?
In the United States, President John F Kennedy was faced with the challenge of violence and discrimination against black Americans during the 1960s. Despite the political pressures he faced in supporting the civil rights movement, he eventually used the power of his office to do right by his nation.
Kennedy described the discrimination, threats and violence that blacks faced as a “moral crisis” to the country and its people. “It is a time to act in the Congress, in your state and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face … Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognising right, as well as reality,” he said in a June 1963 address to the nation.
And act boldly Kennedy did, to ensure that the Oval Office under his leadership would end the fear and discrimination that minorities suffered in the US.
Unfortunately, I doubt that we can trust the same kind of leadership from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who has already reneged on the spirit of his administration’s 10-Point Agreement with Christians. And it is left to be seen if the Selangor government under Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim will “act boldly”.
If our politicians fail us, as they are wont to do, then even more so it is imperative for Christians in Malaysia to contest the ban on “Allah”. The importance of “Allah” isn’t just in ensuring all Malaysians have a right to worship peacefully in the way they choose. The importance of fighting the ban and being courageous in the face of threats lies in the fact that unless Christians fight back, we can be certain our lives will dictated by authoritarian tyranny and rule.
Jacqueline Ann Surin wonders if Muslims who are confused with the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims may similarly be confused or feel provoked by non-Muslims who fast for religious reasons. It is conceivable that fasting may also be made exclusive in Malaysia to Muslims only for the same reasons that “Allah” and other Arabic words have been banned among non-Muslims.