Thursday, January 14, 2010

THE 'ALLAH' DEBATE : Politics & Religion

Jan 13, 2010

1Malaysia goal remains elusive

By Joseph Chinyong Liow & Farish A. Noor , FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

THE church-burning incidents in Malaysia last week have dealt a potentially fatal blow to Prime Minister Najib Razak's vision of 1Malaysia. But tragic as they were, the events were not altogether surprising. Indeed, the events following the Malaysian High Court's decision to allow non-Muslims to use the term 'Allah' were merely symptomatic of the nature of religious politics in Malaysia today.

To begin with, one should consider the etymological roots of the word 'Allah' and consider its import for both Muslims and Christians. It is an Arabic word. But because Arabs are themselves culturally and religiously diverse, the term 'Allah' is used by both Arab Muslims as well as Arab Christians. When the Copts of Egypt celebrate their Christmas Mass, for example, the Coptic Pope begins his sermon with the phrase 'Bismillah' and uses the word 'Allah' throughout.

The significance of this cannot be underemphasised: The word 'Allah' is as important to Arab Christians as it is to Arab Muslims, for it stands for the concept of a singular, universal God. It literally means 'The God', with a capital 'G', denoting a singular deity, confirming the fact that both Christianity and Islam are monotheistic faiths.

Thus the reluctance on the part of some Christians in Malaysia to abandon 'Allah' may stem from the fact that they are aware that 'Tuhan' does not have the same connotation. What's more, 'Tuhan' may appear in the plural form ('Tuhan-tuhan' or 'gods'), a meaning more appropriate for polytheistic faiths.

Historically, we know that 'Allah' has been used by Arab Christians and other Christians across South-east Asia. In Indonesia, the term has been used by both Catholics and Protestants since the arrival of Christianity in the archipelago. Even now, at every Easter and Christmas celebration across Indonesia, Indonesian Christians sing the praises of Allah - the singular, universal God. They cannot understand what the fuss is about in Malaysia, and why Christians ought to use another word to denote the singular, universal God. Is it not the case that 'Allah' means precisely that?

This common belief in a singular universal God binds Muslims and Christians together, as they come from the same Abrahamic tradition and believe in the same prophets. Lest it be forgotten, the prophet Adam was neither Muslim nor Christian, but simply a prophet of Allah.

Though freedom of worship is constitutionally guaranteed in Malaysia, Islam is enshrined in the Constitution as the sole official religion of the country. In addition, the Constitution accords syariah law equal status with civil law in jurisprudential matters concerning the private lives of Muslims.

Islam assumes further salience by virtue of the fact that the chief criteria for the definition of 'Malay' in the Constitution is that he or she must be Muslim. Such is the intimate relationship between ethnicity and religion that someone converting to Islam has become popularly known to have 'masuk Melayu' (become a Malay).

The role of Islam at the core of Malay identity has gained greater prominence because two other pillars upon which that identity was once constructed - namely language and royalty - no longer have the same currency they did decades ago.

No doubt the Malay language remains politically important. But precisely because the state has implemented an education policy based on the primacy of Malay in the national curriculum, knowledge of the language is no longer the exclusive prerogative of Malays.

Similarly, Malaysian royalty today have a highly problematic relationship with the Malay ruling elite. The royals are seen by the latter as competitors for legitimacy in the eyes of the populace. Moreover, royalty have undermined their own legitimacy in the public eye because of a number of controversial episodes and scandals.

The centrality of Islam has been further augmented by the state-orchestrated discourse of Malay primacy encapsulated in the concepts of 'ketuanan melayu' (Malay primacy) and 'bumiputera rights'. Remarkably, even as the opposition Islamic party Parti Islam SeMalaysia has gradually toned down its brand of religious politics, the ruling Umno has persisted in employing exclusivist racial and religious discourse. Indeed, though ethnicity has long been the primary identity marker for Malays in Malaysia, there may well be a shift from ethnicity towards religion, with Malays seeing themselves first as Muslim, rather than Malay.

The church-burning incidents of the past few days, and the government's seeming inability or reluctance to take resolute action against certain segments of the

Malay-Muslim community, are sobering reminders of just how far the country is from the goal of national unity, as envisioned in the 1Malaysia concept. And of course, 1Malaysia cannot materialise without the support of Malay-Muslims, who happen to be the vital constituency whose support Prime Minister Najib seems to be losing.

Joseph Chinyong Liow is the associate dean at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the school.

[When religion and politics mix, rationality and restraint goes out the window. ]


Malaysia's political parties take new hues
By Maznah Mohamad

IN MALAYSIA'S current political climate, it is no longer possible to distinguish Islamic radicals from Islamic moderates. Despite official boasting about the country's diversity and commitment to pluralism, Islam and the government have essentially merged.

Over two decades, the government led by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) has invested enormous resources in building up a network of Islamic institutions. The government's initial intention was to deflect radical demands for an extreme version of Islamic governance. Over time, however, the effort to outdo its critics led Umno to over-Islamicise the state.

Umno's programme has put syariah law, syariah courts, and an extensive Islamic bureaucracy in place. The number of Islamic laws instituted has quadrupled in just over 10 years. After Iran or Saudi Arabia, Malaysia's syariah court system is probably the most extensive in the Muslim world. The accompanying bureaucracy is not only big but also has more bite than the national Parliament.

Islamic laws are based on religious doctrine but codified and passed as statutes by state Parliaments. Not much debate attends their enactment, because a fear of heresy keeps most critics from questioning anything deemed Islamic.

While Umno still trumpets its Islamic advocacy, the party is facing difficult choices, particularly as it wishes to maintain foreign investment in an increasingly polarised environment.

For example, Minister for Home Affairs Hishammuddin Hussein recently held a press conference to support Muslims who demonstrated against the construction of a Hindu temple in their neighbourhood. The protesters paraded a severed, bloody cow's head in the street, then spat and stomped on it. This was an offence to Malaysia's Hindus, who consider the cow a sacred animal.

Just a week earlier, a young mother by the name of Kartika was sentenced by Malaysia's Syariah Court to six lashes of the cane and fined after she was caught drinking beer at a hotel. Although the sentence was still in limbo, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin publicised his acceptance of the punishment by inviting the official floggers to his office to demonstrate how an Islamic caning is carried out. They used a chair as a mock target, and left the minister satisfied that Islamic caning can be appropriately used as a punishment for women.

Ironically, Mr Hishammuddin is far from being an Islamic hardliner. The son of Malaysia's third prime minister and a cousin of the current Prime Minister, he is widely considered to be modern, moderate and cosmopolitan.

The true hardliner is Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the Menteri Besar of Kelantan state and also the spiritual leader of Malaysia's largest Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). But Mr Nik Aziz opposed the anti-Hindu protest, and went so far as to say that anti-Muslim protesters in Britain were more civilised in their approach.

Hence, it is no longer accurate to think of PAS as a fundamentalist party and Umno as moderate. Party strategies are leading them in unexpected directions. Umno's radical turn is being matched by PAS' attempts at moderation. PAS is aiming for the most unlikely of voters: non-Muslims, who account for 40 per cent of Malaysia's population and are increasingly alienated from Umno.

Umno, meanwhile, is intent on dividing the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat, of which PAS is a member. Led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, the alliance has picked up political momentum since making real gains in the last general election.

Concerned by its losses, Umno has staked a claim to be the defender of Islam in Malaysia. The 'cow head' protest, which was led by Umno members, was an example. The formula is simple: portray Islam as being threatened by infidels, and then have Umno ride to the rescue of the besieged Muslim community.

The caning of Ms Kartika, on the other hand, was not an example of political manipulation, and for this reason is perhaps even more worrisome. Her sentence was roundly supported by modernist Muslim intellectuals, who insisted that the punishment was justly applied and cannot be questioned because it had divine sanction. These are not politicians, but former idealists who are happy that their goal of Islamicising the state is being realised. Most are anti-Umno and support PAS.

As a result, Umno finds itself squeezed between an Islamic lobby that presses for greater 'Talebanisation' of the country, and the rising voices of international critics, who cannot be ignored, because the party needs both radical supporters and foreign investors to stay in power. Balancing these two constituencies is becoming increasingly difficult for Umno.

But the opposition will also be forced to figure out the role of religion in Malaysia, if ever they get an opportunity to form a government. A young Islamic radical, Datuk Seri Anwar, used to ask: How does one Islamicise government? Now he has to figure out how to govern one.

The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.


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