Monday, 30 March 2009

God and the Government

Last week the Malaysian Minister of Islamic Affairs warned the Malaysian Bar Council against conducting an online poll to determine whether lawyers and members of the public agree with the government’s ban preventing non-Muslim publications from using the word ‘Allah’.

The warning follows a dispute in January this year, when the Interior Ministry prohibited the Catholic Herald newspaper from printing its Malay language edition after it was found to contravene a 2007 ban on using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to the Christian god.

It later softened its position, allowing the word to be used as long as it is explicitly stated that the material is not for intended for Muslims. To prevent hapless Muslims becoming confused and accidentally converting to a different faith, the Herald was compelled to print ‘For Christianity’ on its cover.

It is worrying that the Malaysian government does not appear to be aware that the Arabic word ‘Allah’ predates Islam, that it is the only available translation for ‘god’ in the Malay language, and that the god worshipped by Christians is, in fact, the same god that Muslims worship.

More worrying, however, are the government’s continued efforts to politicise religion. In Malaysia’s highly racialised political system, religion was bound to get caught up in the whole thing to a certain extent, particularly given that ‘the Malay race’ is defined as unequivocally Muslim.

But recent years have seen a creeping conservatism gaining strength throughout Malaysia. When my mum was growing up in the sixties and seventies, hardly anyone wore the tudung (headscarf). Now it is commonplace, even among teenagers and twenty-somethings.

On a more sinister note, anger directed at the state of Israel is translating into a weird anti-Semitism expressed mainly by people who have never knowingly encountered a Jewish person in their lives. My own uncle, who almost certainly falls into that category, spent a good three or four days trying to get me to read that infamous forgery The Protocols of Zion. Malays routinely equate “Jew” and “Israeli”—an unsurprising conflation given that Malay Malaysians’ national identity is bound to static notions of race and religion, but one that makes me wince nonetheless.

In addition to this shift among the Muslim population, which may well be attributable to global political developments like the war on terror and the belief that Muslims are increasingly targets of victimisation, particularly in the Middle East, there appears to be a growing willingness by the Malaysian authorities to assert Muslim supremacy in the country and take an intolerant approach to the rights of non-Muslims.

In 2007 we heard about the Malaysian woman born to Muslim parents but raised as a Hindu, who asked to be officially registered as a Hindu. As a result she was detained for months in an ‘Islamic Rehabilitation Centre’, where she was forced to pray as a Muslim, wear a tudung and eat beef. In 2005, a Hindu Malaysian was buried in a Muslim cemetery under Muslim burial rites after a Sharia court ruled that he had converted to Islam just before his death, against the evidence of his friends and family. And now we have the government stipulating what non-Muslims are allowed to call the god they worship.

What's next?

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