Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Assalamu alaikum!

Assalamu alaikum! I greeted Uztaz Kamal, a religious teacher, whereupon he looked at me strangely and in no uncertain terms, told me that the greeting was reserved for use only by Muslims. I was taken aback for I wanted to show him that I could also speak a few words of Arabic and that he was my 'brudder' too. I had been under the impression that it was a common greeting among the Jews, Christians and Muslims of the Arab world and its meaning "Peace be with you." is to me very expressive instead of the nondescript "Selamat sejahtera". Since when did it become the exclusive preserve of my Muslim 'brudders' in Malaysia?

Can non-Muslims use the word Allah" to mean God? The Catholic Herald, a publication by and for the Catholics in the country was told by the Internal Security Ministry that it could not use the term in their Malay language section and its permit would be withdrawn if it failed to abide by the new directive. The Deputy Internal Security Minister when asked for the reason why "Allah" could not be used, explained that "Only Muslims can use the word 'Allah'." The word is Arabic for 'God' and it is used by peoples where Arabic is spoken, and these peoples include the Jews, the Christians and other sects that speak the language. It is ironic too that the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, has no quarrel with the Bahasa Indonesia translation of the Holy Bible which uses "Allah" for God.

The Catholic weekly newspaper sought a court order to prevent the Malaysian government from disallowing it to continue to use the word.

Going by the logic of the Deputy Minister, it would have meant that henceforth, all non-Muslims from the state of Johor would not be able to sing the Johor state anthem as "Allah" is repeated three times. As a Johorean, I have been singing the Johor anthem since I was a kid. So much for national unity.

The government subsequently retracted the directive and issued a new permit to the Catholic Herald. Whether the publisher will continue with its court action remains to be seen. However, it is more likely that it would not pursue the matter further in the interest of racial harmony.

(Latest development - 4th January: In an about turn, the government has announced that the Herald is not allowed to use the word 'Allah' in its publication as it is a decision of the Cabinet in two meetings on Oct 18 and Nov 1. It looks like the ball is at the feet of the publisher).

In another controversy involving the use of 'Allah', the Sabah Sidang Injil Borneo Church has sued the government for prohibiting the import of six Christian children's books from Indonesia on the grounds that they use the word 'Allah'. The non-Malay and mostly Christian indigenous people of East Malaysia have traditionally used the word in their prayers and scriptures.

on his visit to Sabah, the Deputy Prime Minister had advised the state government to settle the Ma Tzu controversy amicably without going to court. He has rightly pointed out the peaceful co-existence of churches, temples and mosques in Sabah and such practice should be continued.

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