Who does the word “Allah” belong to?
Posted by sanityinjection on January 8, 2010
That is the question at the heart of the current controversy in the majority Muslim nation of Malaysia, which also has significant religious minorities including Christians. The issue flared up recently when the Malaysian government confiscated loads and loads of Bibles written in the Malay language brought in by local Christian groups. The government claimed that the Bibles illegally used the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God and that the word properly applies only to the God of Islam. (Never mind that any half-trained theologian can tell you that the two faiths worship the same Supreme Being – the God of Abraham, though they view Him quite differently.)
The Christians had earlier filed suit against the government for outlawing their use of “Allah” in their religious newspaper, pointing out that “Allah” is an Arabic word that means “God” and that is used routinely by Arab Christians and Arabs of other faiths. The government responded that the use of the word was intended to confuse Muslims and trick them into converting to Christianity. (If that seems reminiscent of anti-Semitism, it should.) The government claimed that the Christians’ use of the word could lead to violent unrest.
On December 31, the Malaysian High Court ruled in favor of the Christians. Of course the government promptly appealed. It only took about a week after that before Christian churches started being firebombed. Now the government is in the awkward position of having to defend itself against charges that they incited the riots they had earlier predicted. While I doubt that there was any official involvement, I have no doubt that the pillars of society who threw those firebombs were incited and egged on by the imams of their mosques to strike a blow against the infidels.
The irony of all this is that Malaysia is generally considered one of the more secular, democratic, and largely free Muslim nations. And yet the difference in basic values between Malaysia and any Western democracy couldn’t be more clear. The very notion that our government could give a religion the exclusive right to use a foreign loanword is simply incomprehensible. (Heck, even Western Christians would never dream of trying to demand exclusive rights to the name “Jesus”.) What is most telling about the whole issue is not the ultimate outcome of the case, but the fact that the issue even arose in the first place.