Malaysia trying to find its religious equilibrium
Multicultural Malaysia, whose official religion is Islam but which has sizeable numbers of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, has been struggling of late to ensure religious freedoms for its minorities, without offending the sensibilities of majority Muslims.
In the latest case, a Malaysian court granted permission to a Christian to challenge the authorities for seizing religious materials that used the word “Allah”. The government has banned the use of the Arabic word to describe God by all except for Muslims, saying it might confuse Muslims or offend their sensisibilities.
(Photo: A Hindu pilgrim outside Kuala Lumpur, 8 Feb 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)
The Catholic Herald, Malaysia’s main Catholic newspaper, has been fighting the government for months over the right to use the word “Allah”. Herald Editor Rev. Lawrence Andrew argues that Malaysian Christians have used “Allah” as their term for God for centuries. In a recent edition, the Herald slammed a new locally produced Bible, which further muddied these troubled waters by using the Hebrew word “Elohim” instead of “Allah” (or God for that matter) for the Almighty.
The new government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, which took over last month, is trying to portray itself as reformist. It has begun dismantling, albeit in an incremental way, some of the economic and educational privileges guaranteed Malay Muslims under Malaysia’s ethnically based political system. Najib’s government has undertaken a review of a draconian internal security law that allows indefinite detention without trial and which has been used liberally against Indian and Chinese opposition figures.
In another apparent concession to religious pressure, Legal Affairs Minister Nazri Aziz last month banned the conversion of children to Islam without the consent of both parents. The decision concerned the highly publicised case of a 34-year-old Hindu woman, Indira Gandhi (no relation to the late Indian leader), whose estranged husband converted to Islam and then did the same with their children. Nazri said minors were to be bound by the common religion of their parents at the time of marriage, even if one parent were later to become a Muslim. A number of Muslim organisations were opposed to the move, saying it was unfair to the Muslim parent, and the case has wound up in the courts.
(Photo: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, 10 April 2009/Udo Weitz)
Najib’s reform platform may make some Malay Muslims uneasy. But the coalition government led by the Malay nationalist UMNO party is responding to the debacle it suffered in the last general election, when minorities, and even many Malays, deserted a coalition that has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since 1957, and made a huge swing to the fractious opposition alliance.
So the government will likely continue its balancing act, offsetting concessions to Hindu and Christians here with a sop to Muslims there. The Ahmadiyyas, a moderate but controversial Muslim sect, may have lost out in these equations. An Islamic council issued a fatwa against the sect last month that bans it from conducting prayers in its mosque. The Ahmadis are considered heretical by some Muslims because they refuse to accept the Prophet Mohammad was Islam’s final prophet, and say that the founder of the sect, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is a prophet and messiah.
All of this is taking place as Muslims have taken a more activist approach to the changing religious climate in Malaysia. A coalition of 50 Malaysian Muslim non-governmental organsiations known as Pembela that came together in 2006 has been spearheading the fight against apostasy, particularly the series of conversion cases (including Indira Gandhi’s) that have come before the courts the last few years.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” Or politics in Malaysia for that matter.