FaithWorld

Malaysia trying to find its religious equilibrium

MALAYSIA/ 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.

ASEAN-SUMMIT/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.

Gutsy pastor opens megachurch in world’s biggest Muslim nation

Pastor Stephen Tong, 20 Sept 2008/Enny NuraheniStephen Tong is one gutsy pastor. On Saturday, the head of the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church opened a multimillion dollar megachurch in Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. “This proves that there are no restrictions from the Indonesian government to build religious centres,” the Chinese- Indonesian preacher said. “It gives the world a new impression of Indonesia: it is not a messy country or full of troubles.”

Indonesia has traditionally been a tolerant country, but this tolerance is under pressure from Islamist radicals who want to drive wedges between the country’s Muslim majority (86%), Protestants (6%), Catholics (6%), Hindus (1.8%) and other faiths. Just last month, an evangelical seminary was forced out of a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Jakarta. The annual U.S. State Department freedom of religion report released on Friday reported radical pressure on Christians and on the Ahmadis, a non-orthodox Muslim sect:

Inside the Jakarta megachurch, 20 Sept 2008/Enny Nuraheni“Some groups used violence and intimidation to force at least 12 churches and 21 Ahmadiyya mosques to close. Several churches and Ahmadiyya mosques remained closed after mobs forcibly shut them down in previous years. Some Muslim organizations and government officials called for the dissolution of the Ahmadiyya, resulting in some violence and discrimination against its followers. Some perpetrators of violence were undergoing trials during the reporting period. However, many perpetrators of past abuse against religious minorities were not brought to justice.”

Hunting for heretics in the 21st century

Jakarta protester with poster against Ahmadiyya founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 9 June 2008/Dadang Tri“Popular imagination relegates ‘heresy’ to the Middle Ages…” says the Wikipedia entry on heresy. The Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and other excesses of religious zeal against dissenters also seem to be located comfortably far back in the past. But several  news items these past few days have shown that hunts for heretics continue in the 21st century. Locations, religions and methods may be different, but the intolerance is the same.

“Thousands of hardline Indonesian Muslims rallied outside the presidential palace and Jakarta police headquarters on Monday to urge the president to disband a sect branded by many Muslims as “deviant”, a news report from our Jakarta office said. “Militant Muslim groups have attacked mosques and buildings associated with Ahmadiyya, and are lobbying the government to outlaw the sect.”

Ahmadiyya, a late 19th-century movement that considers its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad a latter-day prophet who came to perfect Islam, says it is a Muslim denomination. Most Muslim scholars dispute this, saying Mohammed was the last one, the “seal of the prophets”. Comparisons between religions are always tricky, but its situation looks similar to that of Mormonism within Christianity. Mormons say they are Christians with latter-day prophets and scriptures, but several traditional Christian churches dispute this. This disagreement may have lost Mitt Romney some votes in the Republican primaries in the United States, but otherwise it has not had much effect on public life.