January 11, 2010

The Situation in Malaysia

There have been some tensions in Malaysia due to a recent High Court ruling allowing the Roman Catholic newspaper, The Herald, to continue using the word Allah instead of the English-language God, which the Malaysia government would prefer The Herald to use. (Note: The High Court has issued a temporary injunction against The Herald until the Court of Appeals has judged the case.)

Some people, such as Juan Cole, are puzzled by the Malay response in West Malaysia (various protests and six churches either burned down or attempted to be burned down), noting correctly that in most other parts of the world, God and Allah are used interchangeably; for example, Arab Christians refer to God as Allah. However, this linguistic analysis, as correct as it may be, is not the point. The issue at hand is something completely different:

With all due respect to Dr. Cole, I do believe he is missing the point. His linguistic analysis of the word Allah is correct; however, that is not the issue at play in Malaysia.

The real issue at hand is with respect to conversion to Christianity. The Malaysian newspaper in question, The Herald, is published by the Catholic Church. That newspaper is published in several different languages, but the paper written in Bahasa Melayu, the Malay language, is only distributed to the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The problem as Malays in West Malaysia (the Malayan peninsula) see it is that the Malays and aboriginal people in East Malaysia are less educated, who lead simpler lives*, and they might become confused in reading a Christian newspaper that prints the word Allah, thinking that The Herald is a Muslim newspaper when it is not. This is a valid concern. IMO, the arguments made by The Herald are smoke screens, trying to hide the newspaper's ulterior motive which, indeed, is to convert people to Catholicism. This is what is making some people so angry that they are committing arson against various churches. As a Muslim, I don't condone this behavior, and I think the Malaysian government and political parties have responded properly to this situation. However, I do think the Catholic Church in Malaysia is being provocative and somewhat disingenuous. IMO, they share some of the blame for what has gone on so far.

* In all fairness, the same argument (not well educated, simpler people) applies to many Malays in West Malaysia as well; however, between the two sides of the country, West Malaysia is more advanced.

17 comments:

Terence said...

Hi Dunner,

VERY interesting thesis there on how Herald could be trying to mislead East Malaysians. Could you provide the full link to the article you quoted from?

kinzi said...

Have Malay Christians always used "Allah" rather than "God"? If they are changing from God to Allah to try and make their message more understandable to the simple, is that misleading or making clear?

If they are using the term that always has been used, then I don't think this man's point is valid at all.

In fact, to be encouraged to use a word for the Almighty that has not been used before paints Christianity as something that began with German linguistics, which is where the word came from. 'Allah' was used for centuries before 'God'; Muslims don't have a corner on the usage market.

Inviting people to follow Christianity it hardly an ulterior motive or smokescreen, it is a very clear doctrine of our faith. But it seems this is a newspaper, and Catholics are hardly hard-core evangelists for the most part...is just having a Christian voice in the Malay publishing world such a threat?

And worthy of bombing?

James Ala said...

This is nothing more than Muslims or a subset of them acting badly. The suggestion that the Roman Catholic Church share some kind of blame in this matter is absurd.

By your so called logic a Muslim Publications so called " ulterior motive would justify Baptist Yahoos burning down a Mosque in Texas. All thanks to a very special parsing of a singular word.

Thus would it be the Muslim Minorities fault for that fire if some Baptist Yahoo were to claim that the Muslims were trying to deceive people by saying that they honored Jesus or Mary? Is that the meme being floated here?

After all those poor dears in Texas are so easily confused and have poorer education than the rest of the States of the Union; right? The Muslims were obviously acting in bad faith by making such dubious claims. Everyone knows that Christians have sole possession of Jesus, Joseph and Mary. The Muslim argument that they know these people and honor them by different names is just an intentional plot to deceive.

The burning of Christian Churches in Malaysia because Muslims think they have a monopoly on the word Allah is a huge black eye on the religion of God's final Prophet (PBUH.) Their is no excuse for it, and it dishonors the very foundation of the faith. The sooner responsible Muslims in Malaysia put a halt to this the better.

JDsg said...

@ Terence: I did link to the original article in the post above; the quotation is my own comment.

@ Kinzi: Have Malay Christians always used "Allah" rather than "God"?

According to a Reuters article, "The use of the word 'Allah' has been common among non-English speaking Malaysian Christians in the Borneo island states of Sabah and Sarawak for decades and without any incident."

If they are using the term that always has been used, then I don't think this man's point is valid at all.

Who? You mean me? ;)

Muslims don't have a corner on the usage market.

To which most Muslims worldwide would agree; the only country that seems to be making this argument is Malaysia; even Indonesian Muslims (who are also Malay) don't make this argument.

is just having a Christian voice in the Malay publishing world such a threat?

It is in the sense that proselytizing by non-Muslims to Muslims is illegal in Malaysia (see the Reuters' article). This is why I stated that The Herald's arguments are smoke screens, that they are trying to proselytize covertly while avoiding any overt proselytization, which could cost The Herald its publishing license. (Malaysian newspapers must have a license from the government in order to publish.)

And worthy of bombing?

Of course not, which I stated in my comment. I will say, though, this is why, if you've read my various posts on "free speech," that I argue for some censorship with respect to speech. Because this area has so many different religions and races and ethnicities, it only takes a little incident like this one to blow up the powder keg.

JDsg said...

@ James:

This is nothing more than Muslims or a subset of them acting badly.

I agree.

The suggestion that the Roman Catholic Church share some kind of blame in this matter is absurd.

I disagree. As I mentioned in my above comment (to Kinzi) it is against the law in Malaysia for non-Muslims to proselytize to Muslims. I do believe that The Herald is knowingly trying to skirt the law in order to proselytize.

Is that the meme being floated here?

No, the meme is that the anger is being caused by a perception among the Malays (who are about 99.5% Muslim) that the Catholic Church is intentionally trying to proselytize to the Malay community; note that this issue is only with respect to The Herald's Malay-language newspaper. According to Wikipedia, The Herald also publishes newspapers in English, Chinese and Tamil (an Indian language commonly spoken in SE Asia). The lawsuit against The Herald, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't cover any of these other languages, only the paper published in Bahasa Melayu. So I can understand why the Malays might think their community is being targeted for conversion.

After all those poor dears in Texas are so easily confused and have poorer education than the rest of the States of the Union; right?

I hate to say, I'm not surprised someone tried to use this type of example; unfortunately, the difference between Texas (or Mississippi or any other poor state within the US you might choose) is nothing compared to the income and educational disparity that exists within Malaysia. Texas doesn't have people living in conditions so remote that it takes an hour's canoe-ride upriver just to get to the village.

I will say, though, that I agree completely with your last paragraph. Don't think I'm trying to apologize for the Malays who are burning down the churches. What I am trying to do is explain the real reason for the conflict as opposed to focusing solely upon the literary analysis, which, IMO, doesn't explain anything.

kinzi said...

Hi Dunner, I am perhaps confused as to which opinion is yours, Juan Cole's, The Herald's, the courts, and the Malays.

I will try to come back and think it through again :)

I'd like to get a translation of the specific publication to see what is considered overly evangelistic.

JDsg said...

I would NOT recommend that you visit The Herald's website at this time. I get a malware warning on my browser that their website might harm computers.

Anonymous said...

Don't know a lot about the issue---but I've heard the Malay language already has a word for God---"Tuhan", the Catholic Church does not need to use the Arabic word "Allah"---they can use the Malay word Tuhan........

Terence said...

@JDsg
If it is the case that the below is your own observation, then I would like to question on what basis do you assume that the Herald is doing it for evangelistic purposes? Isn't it more likely that they are doing a Malay translation of the magazine merely to serve the indigenous Christian population in Malaysia?

More on this in the Jakarta Globe: http://thejakartaglobe.com/home/malaysia-court-allah-ok-for-catholic-newspapers/350268

Naeem: said...

AA- JD,

Excellent post, but I second the commenter who said its confusing who said what in your post. Only after going to the Juan Cole link did I realize that the green text was written by YOU. At first glance, it seems you are quoting someone else.

Regards your point, I'm slightly amused by the fact that your attempt at explaining the motivation behind the church attacks, while unequivocally denouncing them, is somehow interpreted as a tacit approval of the attacks.

Why can't people understand that trying to unearth possible motivations behind terror acts is essential in preventing future such acts?

It's like CSI 101. Even the most ignorant criminal investigator knows to look into the motive of a criminal act in order to discover what took place.

This reminds me of the recent Helen Thomas fiasco where she tried asking WHY the underwear bomber tried to blow up the airplane.

No one cares to look into these matters.

kinzi said...

hello Dunner, having linked to Juan Cole I do understand now that you are the writer of the green text, and that makes me sad. No ruffled feathers, but slouching a little, disappointed.Because I think you are cool and enjoy when when agree. :)

I found out that the first translation of the Bible into this language was in 1814 or so, using Allah for God. It isn't just decades.

"Tuhan" is the word for Lord, and although a name of God in Christianity, is different than Allah. As you note, though, linguistics is not the main issue.

I also found out that the Bible, and from one commenter at Juan's, The Herald, has a stamp "Not for Muslims". Isn't that enough of a deterrent? If these people can read their language, it seems they are hardly simpletons even if remote.

I found out a little about Article 11 from Malaysia's constitution- whatever it is they have-(from wiki, sorry I didn't have time to go further) and it states:

"Though Islam is the religion of the Federation, Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and practice his own religion. Every person has the right to propagate his religion, but state law and, in respect of the Federal Territory, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religion, doctrine or belief among persons professing the Muslim religion. There is, however, freedom to carry on missionary work among non-Muslims."

So it is a protected right to evangelize among the non-Muslims there. Evangelism is a pillar of our faith, Jesus' last words were "go and make disciples". But there, it must be toned down to obey the law.

(Thanks for the warning about the Herald). I would wonder then what constitutes proselytizing? To me it means confronting someone with the truths of my faith and then inviting them to trust in my Saviour. They have the choice to accept or decline (I do not do that, btw, in Jordan).

Again, I highly doubt this is happening in a Catholic newspaper. It seems just writing about our faith, loving our Lord, rejoicing over our salvation in print would be considered 'attempted conversion'?

I know that such writing (even without an invitation) will draw some Muslims to leave their faith, but it won't be because someone 'converted them'. It will be a choice of conscience.

I am finding in Jordan, that acts like these church bombings actually become acts of 'Christian evangelism': they draw some Muslims away from their faith and to Christ (or atheism). I know of four men, two had participated in violence in Israel and Iraq, two were plotting in Amman to kill. Jesus appeared to each one of them and told them to stop and believe in him. They did, with not a word from a Christian. These men are only removed from me by one handshake, not modern folktales.

I agree with the one commenter, the Malay bombings dishonour Muslims. I also agree that the use of Allah was in no way provocative. A good choice of words you have: it is their 'perception' of what it is written in the Herald. The right to use the word "Allah" has been granted by the court, so perceptions and behaviour need to change in line with the law.

Have a great day. I am back to smiling, eventho we don't agree.

JDsg said...

@ Anonymous: There are several words for God in Bahasa Melayu/Indonesia: Tuhan and Dewa. Dewa is not normally used by Indonesians, for example, but Tuhan is quite commonly used (check out the translation balloons for the word "God" on the Indonesian Wikipedia page for God, and see how often Tuhan is used; it's not "Allah ... Allah ... Allah," it's "Tuhan ... Tuhan ... Tuhan."

@ Terrence: Isn't it more likely that they are doing a Malay translation of the magazine merely to serve the indigenous Christian population in Malaysia?

That's certainly a primary objective for the newspaper; I'd never deny that. But to answer your first question, let me ask you two questions: Given that a formal word for God ("God" vs. "god") exists in Bahasa Melayu (i.e., Tuhan), why not use that word instead of "Allah?" Nothing would be lost in translation. Secondly, why is "Allah" only being used in the Bahasa Melayu editions of the paper and not in any of the other language (Chinese, Tamil, English) editions?

@ Naeem: Only after going to the Juan Cole link did I realize that the green text was written by YOU. At first glance, it seems you are quoting someone else.

Wa 'alaikum salaam. Apparently people are skimming through my post instead of reading EVERY WORD AS THEY SHOULD BE! ;) (LOL) You of all people should know by now that I create posts out of my own comments - and, yes, they deserve to be blockquoted, darn it! ;)

Regards your point, I'm slightly amused by the fact that your attempt at explaining the motivation behind the church attacks, while unequivocally denouncing them, is somehow interpreted as a tacit approval of the attacks.

Yes, that was weird, wasn't it? More skimming, I guess, where my condemnation was overlooked in the post. In fact, these acts of arson and vandalism against the churches are completely unIslamic; these are all houses of worship "in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure" (22:40). Is not that the most important thing to remember? I suspect those of us who have ties to masajid in North America and Europe are more sensitive to this type of desecration because we have seen our own masajid undergoing the same attacks.

@ Kinzi: I wanted to let you know that I haven't forgotten about you, but your comment is long and I've had a rough night with the baby; insha'allah, I'll respond to your comment tomorrow morning when I have more time.

JDsg said...

@ Everyone: an interesting essay on the topic over at the website MalaysiaKini, where a Malaysian Catholic suggests that the Catholic legal win in the court may very well be a hollow victory; see Compromise for Allah.

BTW, being the Malaysia watcher that I am, I very well suspect that either the Court of Appeals or the Federal Court (the Malaysian Supreme Court) will overturn the High Court's decision to allow the use of the word "Allah" by the Catholics. That wouldn't surprise me at all!

JDsg said...

Because I think you are cool and enjoy when when agree. :)

Well, I appreciate the thought. :) But I don't expect everyone to agree with me; even my wife will tell me when she disagrees with something I've blogged about. (Ironically, I don't think she's read this post or the comments just yet, so I don't know what her opinion is.)

...The Herald, has a stamp "Not for Muslims". Isn't that enough of a deterrent?

And when someone left a copy of Awake! or The Watchtower (published by the Jehovah's Witnesses) or some Chick tract lying around, you've never stopped to pick it up and skim through it?

I would wonder then what constitutes proselytizing?

I can't say what forms are considered legal under Malaysian law or custom, but I can give some Singaporean examples. Here, formally organized, face-to-face proselytizing is allowed. The only notable group who does missionary work here are the Mormons, who do have teams of men (I've never seen female Mormon missionaries here) wandering about the island. The JW are formally banned here, not due to proselytizing, but from their refusal to do national service; as a result, the JW publications aren't circulated here. Chick tracts are banned here (Jack Chick's website is also offically blocked), and a middle-aged Chinese couple was convicted under the Sedition Act here recently due to their distributing some anti-Islam Chick tracts to Malay Muslims. And every now and then, one will find flyers in the door from some religious group or other, usually Christian.

The irony is that extremely few people try to proselytize here, other than the Mormons. But that doesn't mean that religion is absent from the lives of the people (a la Europe). Actually, I'd say that Singapore is one of the most religious countries I've ever been to. Mosques are almost always SRO on Fridays, some churches can be extremely popular (see Terence's blog, Irreligious, about that), and joss incense sticks and joss paper are burned everywhere. I often pass by many Chinese homes and businesses that have little shrines with various food offerings. The attitude here (stressed by the government) is "live and let live, and don't disturb your neighbors." So most people don't proselytize.

Have a great day. I am back to smiling, eventho we don't agree.

That's good; and you too. You are always welcome here! (And you can find me on facebook, too, if you have such an interest.)

kinzi said...

Thx for coming back after a baby-night. It makes me thankful mine are past that stage (although I do miss the sweetness)

I hadn't realized you quote yourself, but it was quote worthy and I may have to remember that when I manage to post a good quote elsewhere than my blog.

I appreciate the cross-cultural evangelism lesson, it is interesting to see what goes on elsewhere. I hate to admit it, but the only reason I pick up Chick tracks is to trash them (Watchtower too. The only 'evangelism' done by Mormons on Jordan is offering a book of Mormon at Marriott hotels, and some wheel chair distribution. Oh yea, and the scholarship/student visa carrot at BYU.

I will look for you on FB!

George Carty said...

"Tuhan" is the word for Lord, and although a name of God in Christianity, is different than Allah.

What, like "Rabb" in Arabic?

Also, why do you insist on using the Arabic plural masajid which the non-knowledgeable reader wouldn't understand? (As opposed to "mosques" or even "masjids"?)

JDsg said...

@ George:

What, like "Rabb" in Arabic?

That's what I believe Kinzi was arguing, although I argued somewhat differently in my comment further below (1/12, 11:58 pm).

Also, why do you insist on using the Arabic plural masajid which the non-knowledgeable reader wouldn't understand? (As opposed to "mosques" or even "masjids"?)

Because masajid is the correct usage. :) Actually, I use both "mosques" and "masajid" interchangeably, and frequently alternate in order not to keep using the same word over and over. But, teacher that I am, I also believe in educating my readers, to use the proper words in the correct manner. So I will frequently use the correct singular and plural forms of Arabic words (if I know them) in my writings and speech.