Allah controversy in Malaysia really about racial politics?

When I first read about the troubles in my country of birth Malaysia that started with non-Muslims having their right to use the word Allah affirmed in a court ruling and culminated in church firebombings, I assumed the culprits who were inflaming tensions were Islamic fundamentalists.

However I stand corrected. It appears that the official stance of the Islamist opposition party PAS is to back the right of non-Muslims to use the word Allah. See also here. This is not to suggest that even everyone in PAS is happy with the official position of the party – it has caused some division in PAS. However what this does suggest is that rather than Islamism being behind the recent unrest, it has been consciously cultivated as a political ploy by the ruling UMNO party who are supposed to be more modernist and secular than PAS. This certainly is consistent with their decision to commence new sodomy proceedings against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. In short, the ruling party has been scared out of its wits by recent electoral losses and the resurgence in the popularity of the opposition coalition cobbled together by Anwar Ibrahim. It’s not surprising to think that they have intentionally formented tensions firstly by legislating the ban against the use of the word in the first place and then by encouraging protests against the high court decision in a ‘divide and rule’ tactic with racial politics thrown in (non Muslim of course being synonymous with non-Malay).

This old piece in the NY Times cottons on to similar suspicions:

The word Allah has always been used without Muslim objection by Christians in the Arab world, as well as those in Malay-speaking Indonesia, where there are 10 times as many Muslims as in Malaysia. The word is itself derived from pre-Islamic Semitic language roots. Even Malaysia’s strictly Islamist opposition party, Parti Islam (PAS), agrees that all Abrahamic faiths are entitled to use the word Allah.

But such facts are of little relevance to UMNO politicians determined to drum up any issue that can be used to show their commitment to defending Malay and Muslim privileges and thus retain the support of a Malay majority against the appeal both of PAS and the multi-ethnic Keadilan party of the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

UMNO cannot claim to be a party of the pious. Half a century in power has turned it into a vast patronage machine that enriches the Malay elite, providing support for luxurious lifestyles. Its insistence that all Malays are Muslims (and cannot convert) is an attempt to give religious backing to the message of Malay racial preference. That is barely in accord with the universalist notions of global Islam but keeps the loyalty of many Malays otherwise resentful of growing income gaps.

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13 Responses to “Allah controversy in Malaysia really about racial politics?”

  1. Graeme Bird Says:

    “it has caused some division in PAS. However what this does suggest is that rather than Islamism being behind the recent unrest, it has been consciously cultivated as a political ploy by the ruling UMNO party who are supposed to be more modernist and secular than PAS. ”

    Come on man. You cannot seriously diagnose this. Muslim extremists can with one side of their mouth say that they would allow us to say “Allah” and at the same time give money to any violent medical or engineering qualified person who wants to murder innocents.

    Why swing against the other side when you cannot know squat. If you are right its simply because once regimes get into it then spooks can get down to it, and then none of us can truly understand up from down.

    But the way. This Al Swearengen? Do you think that the writers may have been partly inspired by V-For-Vengeance?

    If so good show. There was a character we need to be multiplied a bit around the film production industry.

  2. jtfsoon Says:

    Graeme
    PAS are a political party in coalition with Anwar Ibrahim. They have no association with terrorists and are relatively ‘the good guys’, they just want separate Shariah law for Muslims but not for non Muslims. The point here is that it was UMNO (Mahathir’s party) which passed the ban on the use of the word Allah by non Muslims in the first place so PAS is actually more pro-free speech now.

    This isn’t as strange as you think. Both PAS and UMNO are appealing to Malays with PAS usually attracting the more pious ones. So now UMNO is honing in on their territory while trying to split the Opposition with this law.

  3. Peter Patton Says:

    jtfsoon

    I don’t quite follow. Are you saying that there is no groundswell of Malaysian Muslims offended by Christians using Allah? Further, it is, therefore not Islamists who are responsible for unrest such as burning churches. Rather, it is the desperation of the more secular [current] ruling party UMNO, who are scared of losing upcoming elections to the more Islamist opposition PAS party?

    How would UMNO’s action shore up support if there is no support among Muslims for the persecutions? Unless you are arguing that if UMNO can frame PAS for the civil unrest and violence, ordinary Malays will be so angry they will vote for UMNO. THis goes for Muslims also, as they do not support this unrest/violence?

  4. jtfsoon Says:

    Yes Peter, UMNO’s strategy wouldn’t work if there wasn’t some support among grassroots Muslims for this. But I am saying popular support for the unrest, while it appeals to Muslims, is partly racially driven (because most non-Muslims are Chinese) rather than being doctrinal since strictly doctrinally speaking not even the more fundamentalist Muslims of the Middle East have never had an issue with the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims. The word Allah isn’t even religiously grounded to begin with, it’s a semitic word for God.

    The groundswell is clearly there but it was in large part cultivated by UMNO which passed the law instituting the ban in the first place, not PAS. UMNO’s motivation is Machiavellian rather than doctrinal. It has succeeded in
    1) firstly creating an issue which can shore up Malay nationalist sympathies again thus wedging the *supporters* of the opposition coalition which is currently multi-racial and multi-religious
    2) secondly also succeeded in wedging the *members* of the opposition coalition with some opposition legislators siding with UMNO on the ban and some against

  5. graemebird Says:

    “and culminated in church firebombings, I assumed the culprits who were inflaming tensions were Islamic fundamentalists…”

    Why did you change that point of view? Why do you imagine that you know that other people are doing this?

  6. jtfsoon Says:

    Learn to read Graeme, I’m not going to be holding your hand through this anymore. Because
    1) the fricking party actually made up of Islamic clerics and fundamentalists didn’t introduce the ban in the first place and issued a statement saying it agreed with the High court decision
    2) the party that introduced the ban and appealed the decision and organised protests around it was the other party not made up of Islamic clerics but Malay nationalists
    3) All over the Middle east ‘Allah’ is used including by Christians without controversy because Allah is just a semitic word for God.

  7. graemebird Says:

    We are talking specifically about church bombings. So I have to fucking repeat myself. In relation to church bombings, you, Sherlock fucking Holmes, appears to think he knows something about the background of the culprits. Now how can that be?

    “and culminated in church firebombings, I assumed the culprits who were inflaming tensions were Islamic fundamentalists…”

    Why did you change that point of view? Why do you imagine that you know that other people are doing this?

  8. jtfsoon Says:

    I am not talking about people who actually did the church bombings you fuckwit. I am talking about the motivating parties behind the original ban. It was not based on Islamist ideology in malaysia whereas previously I had assumed it was. The fact that it is not is proved by the facts which have already been established as above
    1) the party made up of actual fucking clerics didn’t give a shit about the use of the word Allah
    2) the party not made up of actual fucking clerics did and have the motivation to stir up racial trouble,

    The people who actually did the bombings are of course fuckwits who think they are following Islamic teachings but are merely ‘pawns in the game’ as per that song by the old Hebrew prophet Bob Dylan.

    I am happy to assign the blame to islamist parties for things they are actually guilty of and don’t wish shariah law on anyone, whether they are born Muslim or not. However I go where the facts take me. credit where credit is due. The Islamist party could have done what was in its political self interest and claim that UMNO wasn’t harsh enough on restricting the use of the word Allah, in fact it did the opposite and stood by its actual principles which would have led it to affirm that people of the book are welcome to use the word Allah, which it did.

  9. graemebird Says:

    “and culminated in church firebombings, I assumed the culprits who were inflaming tensions were Islamic fundamentalists…”

    You don’t know what is happening on the micro level. This sort of stuff could indeed be the result of the purposeful inflaming of tensions by fundamentalists. It could be injected into the scene via Saud intelligence just for one example. Via funding radical groups.

  10. BirdLab Says:

    Would the Russian FSB be involved too Graeme?

  11. Peter Patton Says:

    graeme

    Well according to your logic, you accepted Jason’s earlier view even though it appears to have been based on less information than his changed view; that is, it is a deliberate attempt to frame the opposition. Jason’s argument seems cogent given the relatively limited data, the behavior of UMNA and the known acceptance of PAS and its Muslim base for non-Muslims saying “Allah”. All up, given the limited data a little spit and polish with some rational strategic politicking by an incumbent UMNA government under pressure, it all sound pretty plausible to me.

  12. Michael Fisk Says:

    Jason, does the PAS defend the right of ex-Muslims to say publicly that they renounce Islam?

  13. graemebird Says:

    It could be either way. Thats just it. It could be Muslim extremists. It could be government people trying to frame-up Muslim extremists. The local muslim leadership could be taking a more righteous line and yet outsiders could be stirring up factions from within.

    My point is that we cannot know the answer. When 9/11 happened people alibied Saddam of involvement when he had no such alibi. In fact there was a lot of evidence pointing to his involvement. Now this may have been planted, low-hanging fruit but it was still evidence. And we aren’t in any position to say it was not evidence and to alibi him from involvement. Although I think we can say that he wasn’t responsible for the molten iron in all three basements. I think we can assume he is clear of that aspect of the crime.

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