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?
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 / sxc.hu)
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
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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