Malaysia’s God/Allah problem erupts, tarnishing its moderate image

January 21, 2014

(A priest and altar boys walk down the aisle after prayers were conducted during a mass service inside the church of Our Lady of Lourdes at Klang, outside Kuala Lumpur January 12, 2014. REUTERS/Samsul Said )

The Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church seems like a model for the multicultural, tolerant Malaysia that its government likes to present to the outside world.

An ethnic Chinese priest conducts the service in the Malay language to a congregation made up of migrants from the country’s eastern Borneo island states along with a handful of Vietnamese immigrants.

But it takes only a few minutes for the worshippers to utter the Malay and Arabic word for God that has become a festering source of contention in the Muslim-majority country, deepening ethnic divisions and tarnishing its moderate image.

“We believe in Allah, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” the 300 or so faithful chant.

A long tussle over who can say “Allah” in Malaysia has flared anew, as Islamization that many see as driven by political forces threatens to erode the secular constitution and minority rights in the ethnically diverse country following a divisive election last year.

A court ruling last October in favor of the government’s case that Allah is exclusive to Muslims was followed this month by the seizure of more than 300 Malay-language Bibles by Islamic authorities using a little-known state law.

Lawyers say the row now threatens to become a constitutional crisis as the federal charter’s guarantee of religious freedom is challenged by more assertive enforcement of little-used state laws and decrees by Malaysia’s royal sultans – who have the authority to appoint clerics and instruct religious police.

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