Of late I have been receiving questions about the controversy these days in Malaysia. Many Malay Muslims are objecting to the use of word ‘Allah’ by Catholic Christians. They feel only the Muslims can use the word ' Allah' and the Christians cannot. The case reached the High Court of Malaysia which allowed the use of the word 'Allah' by Christians. However, the government of Malaysia has suspended the court verdict for the time being -- not because it is trying to defy the orders of the highest court but because the controversy has become politically unmanageable due to overcharged emotions.
The controversy stems from the fact that the Roman Catholics translate the word God in their Malay language paper the Herald as ' Allah. Of late, violence has erupted and a few days ago some churches were attacked with firebombs; one was extensively damaged. The religious extremists are determined to inflict their views on others. Malaysia, like India, is a multi-religious society and by and large it has remained peaceful except when violence had erupted in late 1960s between the Malays and the Chinese.
All multi-religious societies experience inter-communal or inter-religious tensions in some or more degrees. Malays constitute about 60 per cent of Malaysia’s population. In Malaysia, Malays and Muslims have become synonymous. As mostly weaker sections of society end up embracing Islam in the hope of equality and justice, in Malaysia too, poorer sections turned to Islam. Malays till recently were poor and backward. However, now most of them are well educated and economically better off.
The Malays who oppose the use of word 'Allah' by Christians argue that this will confuse ordinary Malays and in view of missionary activities of Catholic Christians, they may convert to Christianity and they want to ward off this confusion among Malays. This may have its own rationale but the problem has to be solved through dialogue and mutual understanding. The real problem, however, is that some politicians would like to exploit such controversies to their benefit.
In fact those who object to the use of the word 'Allah' by Christians are on weak grounds. As Allah is one and creator of all of us, it cannot be monopolized by any one religious, much less linguistic, community. The word 'Allah' in Arabic was in use before Islam appeared on the scene in Mecca. As Maulana Azad points out in his Tarjuman al-Qur’an, the word 'Allah' is derived linguistically from pre-Islamic ‘eel’ as in Jibra’il or Israf’il etc. The word is Hebrew was also iloh or ilah and by adding ‘al’ (which in English is used for ‘the’), al-ilah (the God) thus became 'Allah' in Arabic and was used for supreme God.
In fact, Muslims should welcome if non-Muslims too use the word Allah for God or Ishwar etc. How can one object to use of 'Allah' by others? Anyone who learns Arabic and talks about God will have to use the word Allah. All Christian Arabs freely use word 'Allah' in countries like Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon etc. No one objects to the use of the word. At least I do not know whether any Muslim Arab ever objected to such use.
I was in Lebanon in the late 19 90s for a Christian-Muslim dialogue and we decided to visit the mosque on Friday and a church on Sunday. We Muslims offered salah (prayer) on Friday and Christians sat in one place till the prayer was over and we discussed with the imam of the mosque certain inter-communal problems. Similarly we Muslims sat and observed while the Christians in the group participated in the service in the church on Sunday. The priest who was delivering the sermon in Arabic was using the word 'Allah' only and had a rosary (tasbih) in his hand, just like the Imam in the mosque. If a curtain had been drawn between us and the priest I would have felt as if the Imam in the mosque was delivering khutba in the mosque. Of course, there were theological differences but otherwise the Arabic language made us feel one.
As I always maintain, any language exists prior to any religion and not otherwise. A religion uses a language which pre-exists it. More than one religious community can use the same language and terminology of both the religions would appear very similar. In fact in Lebanon Christians have rendered yeoman service to Arabic language and it is Christians who have prepared the dictionary of modern Arabic Al-Munjid which is consulted by all Arab scholars of modern Arabic.
No language can be the monopoly of any one religious community. In India too, many Hindus learnt Arabic and Persian which was the court language and they fluently spoke Persian and even wrote poetry in Persian like Chandrabhan Brahman. There were several first rate Urdu poets who were and still are Hindus and they use words like ‘Khuda and Allah in their poetry. How can one object to that?
And as for the fear that the use of the word 'Allah' by Christians would confuse Malay Muslims and they may convert to Christianity, it is not a well grounded fear. Only those who feel their religion is followed without much conviction can entertain such fears. And for the Malays, their very identity and existence is based on Islam and as pointed out above, Malay and Muslims have become identical. How can then such fear be justified?
When one Malay Muslim had converted from Islam a few years ago, there was such a hue and cry -- a Shariah court sentenced her and she had to revert to Islam. Given these circumstances, how can such a fear be justified that there will be mass conversion to Christianity? And in a modern democratic society one cannot stop conversion through fear of law. If any one converts to other religion it is between him/her and Allah. In matters religious, one is answerable only to God, not to any human being.
However, the matter is really not religious but political. The majority community feels it would be reduced to minority and hence it resists any conversion to other religions. In India, the Hindutva forces are enacting laws in the BJP ruled states to stop Hindus converting to other religions like Christianity or Islam but welcome if any Muslim or Christian converts to Hinduism. Thus political benefit and not conversion is the issue. In a truly democratic society what matters is democratic and fundamental rights, not conversion to or from majority community religion. It should be purely an individual decision whether to convert to or from any one religion to another religion. Otherwise our democratic rights would be in great danger.
And as rightist forces and extremists make a big issue out of nothing to create a scare against the minorities, the rightwing extremists in Malaysia also have tried to create such a controversy. And as in India when the BJP raised such a controversy about Ramjanambhoomi temple, the Congress government under Narsimha Rao allowed the Babri Masjid to be demolished. The Malaysian government too is scared and is afraid of implementing the High Court judgment for the time being.
Any multi-religious or multi-cultural democracy does not work smoothly or in an ideal way. Even advanced western countries are facing problems of inter-religious tensions. In France there is often tension between African Muslims and the white French. It is not so much religious but economic and political; also rightist forces are behind such eruptions.
Recently the French government of Sarkozy, which is rightist in ideology, has proposed a ban on the burqa and it proposes to impose a fine of 750 Euros -- not a minor sum -- on anyone found wearing one. Now, it is ridiculous for an advanced democracy to dictate what one should or should not wear. The French rightist government has denounced the burqa as a ‘prison’ but the point is that even if it is, it is not the business of the government to dictate the nature of dress. However, the socialist left is opposing such a ban though they also consider the burqa quite undesirable. They, however, do not consider it desirable to ban it. Thus, after all, it is not secularism which is in danger, as the French government would have us believe, but its own political power. Just as a religion cannot be in danger because of the misdeeds of a few extremists, secularism cannot be in danger just because a few women -- of their own volition -- wear the burqa in France -- and yet we see how the French government is creating a scare and how it is dealing with the subject.
In many countries with multi-religious structure, the right wing among religious majority community has been suppressing the voice of reason successfully. The moderates are being silenced by creating a mass hysteria. There is great need for civil society to play its role and support enlightened policies. Most of the moderate intellectuals have no time or interest to study the issue in depth and become victims of high pitched propaganda.
We need what we call public intellectuals who raise the voice of reason and take a public stand even risking their own reputation, or even career. Most of our moderate intellectuals argue why we should bother about such things and give way to the extremist forces. We should always be ready, like Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre or Noam Chomsky to fearlessly criticize the powers that be in keeping with our conviction. A conviction which does not inspire you to speak out irrespective of consequences is no conviction Be it the controversy about ' Allah' or the burqa or the crime of the Zionists or the rigidity of orthodoxy. That alone can save democracy.