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Thursday, January 7, 2010

How not to widen the 'Allah' dispute

Editorial Desk
The Straits Times
Publication Date: 07-01-2010


The furore in Malaysia over the use of the word 'Allah' by non-Muslims should be kept within its judicial confines, if reason has sway. The government had, in an administrative act, proscribed its use in a newsletter of the Catholic Church. The Church brought a challenge before the High Court, which ruled the ban was illegal. The government has appealed. If the appeal is allowed, whether at Court of Appeal level or in the Federal Court, the final arbiter, Christians and other non-Muslims should acknowledge that the final bar to what they contend are historical antecedents in the use of the word, is immovable. They should concede graciously.
If the judgment stands, which Malaysian opinion thinks is not likely, it would be a reasonable supposition of non-Muslims that the bumiputera-Muslim majority should accept the verdict just as graciously. In either case, respect for the primacy of the law should override partisanship. Malaysia needs this understanding like little else. If the holding line is breached thoughtlessly, there will be a price to pay.
Prime Minister Najib Razak and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, and Pakatan Rakyat opposition figures as well, have acted to calm feelings and asked interested parties to await the outcome of the appeal. This is being rational, a well-timed caution. It takes little for a very public dispute of a visceral nature to take a nasty turn. Mosque elders should urge restraint in their Friday sermons, and Christian services need not dwell on the issue. Each side has a duty to keep the matter off the streets. All things considered, it is sensible to acknowledge that bumiputera Malaysians have never felt more exposed despite the considerable privileges they have enjoyed after 1970, when race-based allotments were formalised as a matter of policy.
Political control and the unchallenged position of Islam form a duality that defines, for good or ill, what it is to be bumiputera. The Malays felt their political mastery was dangerously eroded in the 2008 federal and state elections, in which the Barisan Nasional took a drubbing. Now, they see in the Allah challenge an assault on their faith, as it has been framed.
There are thankfully Muslim quarters which dispute the rendering as unprogressive and insular. But they remain a voice in the wilderness. A case can be made too that Malaysia would progress even faster if the bumiputeras would let the politics-religion duality be gradually worked out of their psyche. But the Allah controversy shows the day is some way off. However, the squabbling, though heated at times, has in the main been conducted in a civilised tone. This is one hopeful sign.

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