WORD is, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is mightily concerned about the “Allah” issue and wants the matter resolved.
Forgive me, but it’s hard to believe this, based on the public statements the government has been making. Honestly, how can we believe that the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government under Najib’s leadership is sincere about resolving the issue of who can use “Allah”?
(Source: maf.mod.gov.my)Indeed, apart from Najib, at least three other cabinet members have publicly displayed a lack of respect, knowledge, or even intelligence about the issues at stake.
First off is Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom, who calls for interfaith dialogue but in the same breath tells church leaders to drop their claim to use “Allah” to refer to God.
To substantiate his argument, reported on 11 Jan 2010, Jamil Khir declared that “church leaders must have deep understanding of the situation and history” about the use of “Allah” in Malaysia.
The following day, Jamil Khir was quoted again as calling for dialogue, and highlighting the initiatives by agencies such as the Institute of Islamic Understanding. But the minister’s call was made together with his call for the different states’ religious authorities to challenge the High Court decision that allowed non-Muslims the right to use the word. Jamil Khir also lauded the Selangor sultan‘s statement about the state’s prohibition against the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims.
At the very least, Jamil Khir is clueless about what a dialogue is and how it works. Dialogue, as experts in conflict resolution will share, can be a powerful tool, but only if it embodies a deep and respectful listening of what is important to the different stakeholders. Meaningful dialogue only happens when all parties are treated as equals. It does not happen when one party is more powerful than the others and has already dictated what results are expected of the dialogue.
Hence, Jamil Khir’s proposal for an interfaith dialogue is either a half-baked public relations exercise to demonstrate that the Malaysian government is fair to all, or, Allah help us all, the minister doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Worse still, it’s both.
No matter — when a minister repeatedly declares that the government is right in stripping away the rights of minority groups, one has to pause to wonder just how sincere the BN government is.
And when a minister extols others to have “deep understanding” of the history of the use of “Allah” in Malaysia, but clearly demonstrates ignorance about the historical and cultural use of the word, one has to protest. Is this the kind of leadership the nation needs governing our country?
Then, of course, there was the downplaying of the attacks on non-Muslim places of worship. “Everything is under control,” declared Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein on 11 Jan 2010, even though by then there were eight churches that had been targeted. And Hishammuddin said this even though the Inspector General of Police had announced that the police force could not guarantee the safety of churches in Malaysia.
Of course, Hishammuddin’s declaration proved faulty when four other churches were subsequently targeted. Additionally, two suraus became arson targets on 21 Jan even though it could not be ascertained if the arson attempts were related to the attack on churches.
And so, what was even more troubling about the home minister was his description of the suburban terrorism happening in modern-day Malaysia. “This is just a small case and only the front door was damaged by splashed petrol,” Hishammuddin said of the Sidang Injil Borneo church in Seremban.
Now, I’ve argued before that Hishammuddin should be sacked for his incompetence. But when the prime minister also downplays the seriousness of the attacks by calling them a “minor aberration”, we really have to stop in our tracks and demand for some answers.
How can the seemingly systematic targeting of churches be “small” or “minor”? It cannot feel like a minor aberration to the community that is being attacked, especially when the state has told them specifically that it cannot guarantee protection.
And really, how different is Najib and Hishammuddin’s statements from a patriarchal society telling women that being sexually harassed is but a small matter? When violence is committed, it is never a “minor aberration” for those being targeted. Indeed, it is to the advantage of the party holding power to downplay the seriousness of the violation in order to continue perpetuating violence.
There is no doubt that the churches were attacked, regardless of whether the attackers were successful in starting a fire. There is also no doubt that the church’s right to use “Allah” is being attacked by the same government that claims it wants dialogue. Hence, unless the Najib administration learns to acknowledge this and respect the feelings of those whose safety are being violated, I have no reason to be convinced of the government’s intention to resolve the “Allah” issue.
Another Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz also gave us all just cause to screech to a halt when he declared that the issue could be resolved if “Allah” was used in Sabah and Sarawak only, but not in the peninsula.
Why? Because peninsular Muslims are insular? And weak in their faith compared to Muslims in Sabah and Sarawak?
Because we may be one nation, but we are actually two countries?
How does this suggestion even resolve the issue of what right the BN government has, through the Home Ministry, to deny non-Muslims the right to use a word that pre-dates Islam and for which Muslims don’t own copyright over?
Let’s be clear. Muslims don’t own the word “Allah”. They never have. And Muslims elsewhere face no confusion over the use of the word by non-Muslims and are, in fact, bemused by the Malaysian government’s actions.
Clearly, Nazri’s suggestion is a half-baked one. It tells us that the minister has no respect for the rights of peninsula-based non-Muslims — even if they are from Sabah and Sarawak — to worship in the national language as they have done for generations.
What will it take for me to be convinced of the Najib administration’s sincerity in resolving the issue fairly?
First, the government needs to admit it was wrong. There is no historical, cultural or scriptural basis for the ban they have imposed on the Catholic church from using “Allah”. Second, drop the court appeal against the High Court decision. Third, stop pandering to the ignorant and fearful among Muslim pressure groups, whether within or outside the administration.
And finally, learn respect. Respect for the legitimate concerns and rights of all Malaysians. Respect for the fact that the government must represent all Malaysians, and not just the majority. And respect that the electorate deserves intelligent and honest leadership.
Jacqueline Ann Surin is not convinced that the Barisan Nasional is capable of doing what is right over the “Allah” issue. She wonders why the government is undermining the “national unity” and “mutual respect” among different communities, which the prime minister says has been the nation’s cornerstone, through its words and deeds.
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns