Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pakatan emerges the winner in Allah issue

The fiery outrage over the High Court ruling High on Dec 31, 2009 that the Catholic weekly Herald’s Bahasa Malaysia edition has a constitutional right to use the word “Allah” is essentially a primal response by those who are controlled by their emotions and are blind to the etymology of the word and the history of their religion.
Soon after the High Court ruling, which is being appealed, several churches were attacked with Molotov cocktails, paint or stones. One church was gutted while the others suffered minor damage. A Sikh gudwara in Sentul was pelted with stones, making it the first non-Christian house of worship to be attacked. Police blamed children for the mischief.
The problem is that while a segment of Malaysians are truly emotional over the issue, politicians have been the ones stirring up the emotions and after the fiery consequence of their grandstanding, they are trying to do damage control by donating money to the very Christians they had earlier lambasted.
It does not help that those stirring up the emotions are from Umno despite their denials.
Every Malaysian would have noticed the difference in reaction between the Umno politicians and the leaders from PKR and PAS.
Both PKR and PAS quickly condemned the church attacks as non-Islamic.
PKR's de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim was quick to release a statement: "We are outraged by the tragic attacks on our Christian brothers and sisters and reiterate our unequivocal condemnation of the bombing of churches in Malaysia....With respect to the use of the word Allah, for example, it cannot be disputed that Arabic speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews have collectively prayed to God as Allah throughout the last fourteen centuries. While sensitivities over its usage have arisen in Malaysia, the way to resolve these conflicts is not by burning churches and staging incendiary protests but by reasoned engagement and interreligious dialogue.
"Much of the blame for the recent attacks can be placed at the doorstep of the UMNO-led BN ruling party. Its incessant racist propaganda over the Allah issue and the inflammatory rhetoric issued by government controlled mainstream media especially, Utusan Malaysia, are reprehensible."
In this way, Anwar slyly pointed his finger at Barisan for fanning the emotions. He cannot be blamed - after all he is a politician.
PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, who visited the damaged church, said he believed those prepared to do such an act were ignorant of Islam and it totally did not reflect the true teachings of Islam.
“This is contrary to Islamic teachings which prevent Muslims from disturbing the houses of worship of the other religions,” he Malaysian Insider.
In another occasion, Hadi said the word “Allah” is not restricted only to Muslims as Christians and Jews are also allowed to use it.
However, the name of Allah should not be used in a wrong and irresponsible manner that could jeopardise racial and religious harmony in the country, he said in a statement.
He supported the High Court’s decision and added that the principle of freedom of religion was championed by Islam because human beings could not be forced to profess any religion except through their own free will.
Whether their statements were based on what they truly believed or were politically motivated will never be known.
But compare their statements to:
Umno's Pasir Salak MP Datuk Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, who was reported to have said: “What is their (the Catholic church) motive (for the suit)? Why all of a sudden they want to use the word Allah when all this while they have been using the term God?
“This is definitely provocation, they are just using all this human rights, religious rights as excuses. This is sensitive to the Muslims and this will create racial and religious tension.”
In Perak Umno’s Wanita, Youth and Puteri wings said Muslims have exclusive rights to use the word "Allah" and are asking for royal intervention to reverse the High Court ruling.
The leaders claimed that Muslims should have exclusive rights to the use of the word “Allah” by virtue of the fact that "Allah" was not a general term but was specific in nature.
In Selangor, about 100 Umno protestors had gathered at Istana Kayangan, the official residence of the Sultan of Selangor, to submit a memorandum to the ruler over the “Allah” controversy, Malaysian Imsider reported.
“We object strongly to the Catholic publication, the Herald Weekly, using the word ‘Allah’ as measures need to be taken to guard the sanctity of Islam. The use of ‘Allah’ by the Herald will in turn threaten the religion of Islam,” said Datuk Ismail Kijo who read out excerpts of the memorandum delivered to the Sultan.
Ismail stated that, as Muslims, members of Umno Selangor would not allow non-Muslims to use ‘Allah’ to preach to the Muslims.
Ismail, who heads the state Umno Islamic Bureau, went on to explain to reporters that the guidelines on the usage of the word “Allah” was clearly stated under the Selangor State Enactment for non-Muslims 1988 (Enakmen Ugama Bukan Islam).
“The word Allah is sacred and specific for Muslims. It needs to be guarded because it is close to the Islamic faith. We are worried that the decision of the High Court will bring about severe consequences to our future generation.”
So which party has been fanning emotions?
As I have said before, whether Anwar or Hadi made their statements for the sake of political mileage is not known, but they have succeeded extremely well in casting Umno as the devil in this episode of Malaysian history.
In fact, the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who is also Umno president, had to vehement deny that his party was to blame for the church attacks.
The Pakatan leaders have put Umno on the defensive even as Umno is trying to project itself as a champion of the Muslim Malays.
Not only that but the Pakatan leaders have successfully reached out to the Christian voters with their middle-of-the-road and accommodating views.
Bear in mind that there are lots of Christian Ibans and Kadazans in Sarawak and Sabah.
These two states ensured that Barisan Nasional could still cling to power in the federal government in the March 2008 elections when Barisan got thrashed in the peninsula.
Perhaps that is the hidden agenda of the Pakatan leaders - to lure over the Christian voters in these two "swing" states.
Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that Pakatan has emerged the winner in this "Allah" controversy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The trouble with Islamo-tribalism

Sometimes it takes a foreigner to spot our weaknesses. This commentary written by a Turkish Muslim scribe should be read by all Malaysians, especially the narrow-minded leaders.

The trouble with Islamo-tribalism

Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News in Turkey
Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Nasty things are happening in Malaysia. Nine Christian churches have been vandalized or burnt just over the last weekend. Thank God, nobody has been hurt, yet, but the terror unleashed is terrifying enough for the Christian minority of this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

Also thank God that the attacks were the work of a fanatic minority among Muslim Malays. Many others, including government spokesmen, denounced the barbarism. Some volunteers from Muslim nongovernmental organizations have even begun patrolling churches to protect them from possible future attacks. This is, of course, commendable.

Yet still, I think that Malays should deal not just with the radical symptoms of the problem. They should also deal with the problem itself.

A copyright of God?

The problem itself is a “copyright issue,” as Marina Mahathir, a Malay commentator, rightly put it. Christians in the country have been using the word “Allah” to refer to God in their services and publications, whereas the Malays believe that they have a monopoly on it. Hence the Muslim-dominated government recently put a ban on non-Muslims using the term. Yet last month the High Court overturned the ban. And hell broke lose.

As a Turkish Muslim, I strongly disagree with my Malaysian coreligionists who disagree with the Christians. The word “Allah” simply means “The God” in Arabic, and Arab Christians have been using it for centuries without any trouble. In Turkey, too, Bibles published by Turkish Christians used to have the term “Allah” until the recent “modernization” in their discourse. The change is their choice, and none of our business.

Most Muslims, in other words, don’t have a problem with hearing the word “Allah” from non-Muslim theists. And this is how it should be, because the Koran repeatedly says that Muslims worship the same God with Jews and Christians. "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you,” a verse orders Muslims to tell these fellow monotheists. “Our God and your God is one."

Whence, then, comes the Malay possessiveness of Allah?

The Malaysian government argues that making Allah synonymous with God may “confuse Muslims and ultimately mislead them into converting to Christianity.” Wow, what a great sign of self-confidence. Why don’t they rather think, one wonders, that the same thing might ultimately “mislead” Christians into converting to Islam.

Besides the obvious immaturity, what is really disturbing to me here is how Allah, the “Lord of mankind” according to the Koran, is reduced to something like a tribal deity.

This was all too obvious in the slogan of the protesters at the mosques of Kuala Lumpur: "Allah,” they said, “is only for us."

But who do you think you are, one should ask. Who gives you the authority to claim that the name of God of all men is your private property?

The answer, as you can guess, lies not in theology but politics. As a piece published in these pages yesterday (Gwynne Dyer, "In the Name of Allah") explained well, the Muslim Malays, despite making up 60 percent of Malaysia, “feel perpetually insecure.” They worry that if their numbers in population decrease so will their dominant role in the country.

Hence comes Malaysia’s tyrannical bans on apostasy from Islam, limitations on mixed marriages, and the current obsession with the Christians’ language. The main intention behind these is the preservation of the dominance, and the “purity,” of a certain political community – say, a big tribe. (The medieval Islamic ban an apostasy, which has no basis in the Koran, was similarly a product of political motives.)

But pursuing the perceived interests of a political community that happens to be Muslim, is not the same thing with upholding the religious values that God has bestowed on Muslims.

The difference between the two is subtle but crucial. It is the difference between serving God, and making God serve us.

Jihad, victory and empire

The latter motivation, I suspect, is imperative in the makeup of the self-righteous, authoritarian and violent movements in the contemporary Muslim world. These movements always strive for some victory, some political dominance, which will elevate their very selves above all other men.

The words of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to blow up a passenger airliner near Detroit two weeks ago, are quite telling. “I imagine how the great jihad will take place,” he reportedly said, “how the Muslims will win ... and rule the whole world, and establish the greatest empire once again!!!”

The yearning for glory here is not too different from what a revolutionary communist expects from the dictatorship of the proletariat, or what a chauvinist expects from an imperialist agenda that will make his nation the master of the world.

The Muslim thing to do, however, is to be more humble, modest and openhearted. The Koran tells Muslims that they are supposed to be “the best community that has been raised up for mankind.” Yet they really can’t serve that purpose if they begin by despising the rest of mankind, and claiming an ownership of God.

And Malaysia can’t really uphold the values of Islam through Islamo-tribalism.

Allah - The Word

I had dinner with a Malay-Muslim colleague who is English-educated and liberal and I thought I would ask him his views on the Allah issue since he would be open-minded enough not to get too emotional and illogical.
It was a pretty interesting chat and it would be something that I will discuss later.
Back home, a friend e-mailed me an opinion piece from Turkey about the fiery uproar in Malaysia following the High Court's decision to overturn the Government's directive banning the Catholic Church from using the word 'Allah' in its newsletter for its Malay-speaking congregation.
I read the article which I will post later and started googling around and found that several other people had commented on the issue including Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid of the New York Times.
His piece was most interesting and I thought I should share it with others.



It was 2006 when I sat with a friend, Hikmat Farha, at the foot of a snow-capped Mount Hermon. Our conversation was about politics, as it usually is in Lebanon, and to make a point, he cited Imam Ali, warrior, sage and seventh-century caliph whom Shiite Muslims consider the divinely sanctioned successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

“Don’t be afraid to walk in the path of righteousness, even if you must venture alone,” Hikmat said, his rendering of Imam Ali’s words from Nahj al-Balagha, the Way of Eloquence, a collection of sayings, sermons and speeches that has served for centuries as a model of Arabic, much the way Cicero’s speeches did for Latin.

Hikmat was a Greek Orthodox Christian. So was his town, which still prides itself on its Bedouin roots, a sense of honor and hospitality so pronounced that a relative there once threatened to beat guests if they refused to eat at his table. I thought of our conversation amid the news about an uproar in Malaysia over a court ruling that overturned a government ban on the Christian use of word Allah to denote God.

No one would hold up the Middle East as a beacon of acceptance. Indeed, tolerance in the region never quite matches its diversity, its truth apparent in the withering of Iraq’s proud Jewish and Christian communities and the sectarian strife that simmers and sometimes explodes in Egypt and Lebanon. A contest in much of the Middle East is under way to claim everything from history to power. At heart, that contest revolves around the axis of identity, now more than ever defined religiously.

But in the Middle East, colloquial Arabic, drawn from the millennia-old tongue in which Muslims believe God spoke to Muhammad, has yet to become a battleground.

Inshallah, God willing, everyone says about everything in the future tense, from an appointment the next day to the sun rising in the east. The same goes for In Allah rad, if God wills it. The word Allah infuses virtually every salutation, greeting and condolence, spoken upon departure and arrival, and at birth and death, a centuries-long refinement of mutual social exchanges that ensures almost no moment is awkward. Kater khair Allah, a Christian in Hikmat’s town would say to his Muslim neighbor.

To him, a shared God, the God of Abraham, has a shared name, Allah.

Not that there aren’t differences in emphasis. Arab Christians often use the words for Lord (rabb) and Father (abb) to denote God. No Muslim would swear on the cross or the Virgin, as Christians do. (Our Lady Mariam, Muslims would say.) Beyond language, fear, suspicion and resentment of other creeds remain a part of the culture, sometimes encapsulated in simple proverbs. To Muslims around Hikmat’s town, you should “eat dinner with a Druze, spend the night with a Christian.” Or, in another rendering,
“Spend the night with anyone except the Druze.” To Christians, you should “eat dinner with a Druze, spend the night with a Muslim.” Only the Druze knew what the Druze said.

But away from the tensions that roil so much of the Middle East, the chauvinism, and the political machinations that stoke religious hatred for tactical gain, the language is a vestige of a shared culture that is undeniably Islamic, but perhaps universal, too.

A few days later after the conversation with Hikmat, I sat with other friends in the town, Abu Jean, a Christian, and Abu Alaa, a Muslim. There was the talk of a village – about landscapes, people, things that seem remarkable when all else tends toward the mundane. They marveled at the intricacy of honeycomb. Qudrit Allah kbeereh, Abu Jean said. “What God can do.” Abu Alaa lamented his relative’s misfortune. Allah karim, he said. “God is generous.” Abu Jean boasted. “I’m only scared of God. Look, trust me,” he said to Abu Alaa, pointing his index finger to the sky, “God will leave the jerks behind.” Abu Alaa nodded his head. Allah fawq, he told Abu Jean. “God is above.”

The conversation was a cliché I had heard countless times, but they seemed to enjoy repeating it, Muslim and Christian, appreciating a vocabulary they both understood.

Anthony Shadid, 41, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his coverage of Iraq. He is the author of two books, ‘Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats and the New Politics of Islam’, and ‘Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War’. He is currently at work on a third book about his family’s ancestral village in Lebanon 

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Almost a snatch-theft victim, Part 2

It seems as if snatch thieves love me. I am beginning to wonder whether I look like a sucker or something.
Barely two hours ago, I almost lost my wife's handbag to a snatch-thief.
I had just parked my car near the football field across the road from Chow Yang in SS2, Petaling Jaya, when the incident occurred at about 8.30pm.
Earlier I had dropped off my wife, kids, father, mum-in-law and the maid outside a restaurant along the same row as Kayu restaurant and had circled the area twice looking for a parking lot.
My wife had left her handbag in the car and she reminded me to bring it along to the restaurant.
It was one of those woven rope bags with wooden handles. I clutched it under my left armpit and held its side with my left hand.
The road was quite deserted and dark. I saw a motorcyclist heading towards me on the other side of the road and did not bother too much about him.
After he had passed me, I thought I heard a bike behind me and I suddenly felt someone grabbing the wooden handles of the handbag.
Instinctively I tightened my grip and when the snatch thief realised he could not pull the handbag from me, he let go, revved the bike and zoomed off. As usual, it was too dark and it happened too quickly for me to even catch a glimpse of him. And don't forget I have multi-focal intra-ocular lens implanted in my ageing eyes which unfortunately don't work so well in the dark.
But I could see he was alone.

That's me showing how
 I held my wife's handbag.

Since I was on the other side of the road, he must have quietly made a U-turn to approach me from behind and grab the handbag which was on my left.
He had grabbed it with his right hand making it impossible for him to rev the bike at the precise moment that he caught hold of the handles of the bag.
If it had been a two-thief team, it would have been a different story since two men on a moving bike would have greater momentum and with the pillion rider doing the snatching, the motorcyclist would have his hand on the throttle and would be able to rev the engine at the right moment.
Since it was my second encounter with snatch-thieves, I did not feel that shaken up after the incident.
And as usual, I will have to give thanks to Allah for keeping me safe and unharmed. And, of course, for ensuring that the snatch-thieves had zero gain.
At the restaurant, my wife told the owner about the incident and he said that things were better when the police pondok (temporary base) was set up in the vicinity.
A few days ago, the police pondok was closed. Naturally, when the cops were away, the crooks came out to 'play'.
Police pondoks had been set up in numerous crime-prone spots recently soon after the Government had announced plans to reduce the crime rate.
The question is - now that the police pondoks have closed, for whatever reason, will the crime rate rise again? Based on my experience, it will.
That means the Government's move to cut crime is only a temporary measure which should result in low marks in its KPI.
The leaders of this nation should get out of their fenced-up mansions and shiny limos, disband  their police escorts, tell their armed bodyguards to go home and truly mingle with the masses to know the reality of the situation.
Crimes are being committed everywhere and the people - especially the urban middle-class folks - are living in fear. That, sadly, is the reality.