Why is your Allah not my Allah?

(First appeared in Malaysiakini)

As an East Malaysian, I am neither surprised nor angry about Malay/Muslims being up in arms over the ‘Allah’ High Court ruling.

It was to be expected, really.

What does anger me is getting comments from West Malaysian Christians that it is ‘silly’ for Christians to lobby to use the word ‘Allah’.

One rather un-enlightened Christian said that “Allah is also a word used to describe one particular god in a pagan religion…so for Christians to use ‘Allah’ is strange and silly.”

The whole ‘Allah’ debacle highlights a bigger, more endemic problem in the Malaysian, or should I say West Malaysian mentality: General ignorance of how the ‘others’ or ‘lain-lain’ live.

It seems very hard for most West Malaysians to understand that:

  • Not all bumiputeras are Malay.
  • Not all bumiputeras are Muslim.

It isn’t just West Malaysian Muslims who have a very limited worldview but Christians as well.

They don’t understand that in East Malaysia, with its high population of indigenous Christians, Bahasa Malaysia is used in services.

Most of these Sabahan and Sarawakian Christians have spent their whole lives thinking, praying and referring to their God as ‘Allah Bapa’ (Father God).

Allah wordAnd now the government says they can’t. That only Muslims can use the word ‘Allah’ when that isn’t true in other countries.

Look at Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, which allows the printing and dissemination of bibles in Bahasa Indonesia that refer to God not as ‘Tuhan’ but as ‘Allah’.

The Indonesian Muslims don’t worry that their brethren will be ‘confused’ by these bibles. So why is our Home Ministry and all these religious groups up in arms?

The answer to that is politics. Religion is, unfortunately, something as mixed up with politics as is race. Political parties unabashedly use religion as a tool to win debates, with Umno often accused of trying to ‘out-Islam’ PAS.

Religion is not a private matter in this country and is, instead, aired like so much dirty laundry. What other Southeast Asian country has officially sanctioned civilian peeping Toms who consider it their civic duty to weed out fornication?

Malay is our language, too

Despite the many varied ethnicities in Sabah, they have managed to get along without bloodshed or May 13-like incidents.

How have we managed it when West Malaysia’s three main races mostly give each other a wide berth? It’s called tolerance, people.

All Sabahans speak a slightly modified version of Malay with the funny little suffix ‘bah’ tagged behind a lot of words or sentences.

In rural areas, this heavily-accented version of Malay is the only means for most people to communicate with each other. They speak, think, dream and yes, even pray in the language.

Sabahan Michelle Quek asks: “Is it more important to recognise that some Muslims lay claim to the word as being exclusive to their faith, or recognise that a practical need for the word exists for East Malaysian Christians?”

christian faith 030108 crossHer question embodies the difficult balancing act that Malaysia has in attempting to address the needs of its varied peoples as well as the gulf between East and West Malaysia.

Kavin Ch’ng, who is married to a Sabahan, says that locally, for many generations, Malay-speaking Christians have always referred to Allah and Tuhan in the same breath.

“Why only now does the government kick up such a fuss?” he asks. What is important, Ch’ng says, is mutual respect.

“I think there is a way to co-exist – if only our government can actually wrap its head around the concept of context.”

Sarawakian El’Bornean finds it disturbing that West Malaysians now want to dictate how one’s personal faith is practiced.

“The true Malaysians are here in Sabah and Sarawak,” he says, citing examples of his Muslim friends who have no qualms sitting with friends in non-halal stores and visiting churches.

Despite being surrounded by Christians, East Malaysian Muslims do not consider their faith easily shaken, he asserts.

Sabahan Dusun Zara Kahan has a humorous, if facetious, solution.

“If (some) Muslims insist on ownership of the term ‘Allah’ then Christians must do the same with the term ‘Tuhan’. Do you know how many Hari Raya songs will be in jeopardy? End of issue!”

No, we don’t want to convert you

In West Malaysia, technically Christian worship services in Malay are illegal. But Sabahan and Sarawakian students ask for them anyway.

Many of these Malay-speaking East Malaysians feel uncomfortable attending worship services in English because the terms are unfamiliar. Muslims often cite the 99 names of Allah and for Christians in East Malaysia as well as Lebanon and Syria, Allah is their name for God.

All this talk about ‘confusion’ is really the product of West Malaysians not mixing with their East Malaysian brethren.

If you visit the Dusuns in Ranau, you could well meet locals as fair as highland Chinese with slanted eyes who would greet you with the traditional Muslim salam.

Wander into an East Malaysian Chinese coffee shop and you would see tanned, Malay-looking locals happily digging into ‘char siew’ or other pork dishes

In East Malaysia, you can’t easily tell what faith someone professes or what race his forefathers were just by looking.

This is very disturbing to the West Malaysian psyche. I have met West Malaysians who get very agitated when I refuse to tell them either what religion I profess or what race I am.

They don’t know what to do with me because they can’t categorise me. I don’t fit into their safe little boxes which decide how they will treat me.

What annoys me as well is this West Malaysian paranoia that Christians have a secret ongoing campaign to convert Muslims on the sly.

council of churches malaysia forum 250407 audienceLet us be honest. If converting Muslims to Christianity was as easy as pouring holy water into your drinking water or putting the word ‘Allah’ in all available religious literature, the Pope would have sanctioned it years ago.

Christians don’t get ‘brownie points’ by forcibly converting unwilling Muslims.

I suppose all the Malay-looking Christian East Malaysians really confuse the locals to the point they rabidly proclaim that churches are succeeding in their nefarious campaign to take over Muslim souls.

In East Malaysia, Christians and Muslims come in various sizes, shapes and colours. Even huge extended families often have different religions, sometimes staying under one roof.

It is not unusual for an East Malaysian to have not just Christian, but Buddhist, Muslim
and animist relatives. A friend of mine says it is a convenient excuse to celebrate the many public holidays with more gusto.

When told that someone is marrying a person of another race, the common reaction is: “Oh, your kids will be cute!” No heated discussion about traditions or religious differences because the unspoken assumption is that the couple will work them out.

Because they do.

Be Malaysia, not 1Malaysia

A well-known comedian talked about the recent Al-Islam undercover foray into churches. Its so-called investigative journalists entered churches on false premises and desecrated the communion wafer.

Did the Christians protest? asked the comedian. Did they declare bloody war? Did they have angry sermons and plan noisy demonstrations outside churches on Sunday?

No. What did the Christians say? “Forgive them-lor. Pray for them-lor.”

The comedian mused that the incident was actually excellent public relations for the church.

Despite our annoyance with West Malaysian intolerance, do you see East Malaysians picketing?

We gripe, we grumble, we send politely-worded statements. Yet we still believe in the Malaysia that our Tourism Ministry tries to sell, but which seems to be a myth in West Malaysia.

Do you want to know why? Deep in the heart of most East Malaysians, we truly believe in tolerance. We believe in the ideals of Malaysia.

We don’t have to give ‘muhibbah’ a name because we live it. Since 1963, we have lived as Malaysians, believing in true tolerance and that race or religion matters little.

We truly do believe that West Malaysians can and should get over us using ‘Allah’ to worship God. Isn’t Allah the God of all mankind? Isn’t your Malaysia our Malaysia too?

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