Monday, June 21, 2010

When It Comes to Allah in Malaysia, What’s in a Name?

Earlier this year, 10 Christian churches in Malaysia were firebombed, attacked or vandalized on account of a controversy over the widespread use of the word “Allah” by Malaysian Christians. “Allah,” radicalized sections of Malaysian society said, was only for Malays.

This semantic quibble is wholly explicable within the context of Malaysian social dynamics.

The trouble arises from the conflation of at least two factors: first, the troubling relationship that exists between “Malay” and “Muslim” in Malaysia, and second, the relationship that Malay-Muslims have with the rest of Malaysian society.

There are at least two words for “God” in Malay: Allah and Tuhan. The first is from Arabic, a Semitic word for the divine, combining the definite article “al” (“the one”) with the root word “ilah” (“god”).

The second and probably older word in the region, Tuhan, shares a common etymology with the Austronesian word “atua,” or “god.”

Both words have been in use in Malay, more or less interchangeably, throughout its written history.

What has animated the controversy, however, is the claim by the ruling government in Malaysia that the word “Allah” is something especially Islamic, and exclusively Malay.

Under the Constitution, a Malay is defined as a person born to a Malaysian citizen, who professes to be Muslim, who speaks the Malay language, who adheres to Malay custom and who lives in Malaysia.

This definition comes directly from the Land Reservation Act of 1913, which the British passed in an attempt to define the group of people for whom state protectionist policies were intended.

But over time the definition proved both politically expedient and psychologically central to Malay self-perception.

The British gained much colonial mileage out of professing to be protecting “the Malays,” while “the Malays” came to see themselves as a coherent cultural entity.

The result is that today this definition is no longer only politically instrumental — it has become true for many Malays. It is an authentic description of what their sense of identity rests on: geography, language, culture — and religion.

But why is Islam, more than the other elements of the definition, such an important part of Malay identity? The answer here is demographic, as one can see in a comparison with Indonesia.

Visible ethnic minorities in Indonesia have never comprised a large part of the population; today they are often deeply assimilated.

The Chinese population, at 3 percent to 5 percent of the total, is relatively small.

Indonesians have never experienced anxiety over which ethnic or linguistic group is entitled to use the word “Allah.” Indonesian Christians use it without a second thought.

In contrast, Malaysia is a much more heterogeneous society, with Malays making up some 60 percent of the population, ethnic Chinese somewhere around 25 percent to 30 percent and ethnic Indians about 8 percent.

The proximity of cultural difference has created incentives for Malays to differentiate themselves, and to cling tightly to those differences.

And in Malaysia, of the five constitutional elements of “Malayness” listed above from the 1913 definition, only two remain that are not now widely shared by all citizens since independence in 1957: Malay “custom” and Islam.

Religion has therefore become a central marker of ethnic identity in Malaysia. And here is the nub of the problem. In the case of Islam, Arabic comes with the territory.

It’s not so much that many Malays speak Arabic, but rather that any connection to the Arabic culture and language should be, in Malaysia, only effected through Islam — which is in turn almost exclusively Malay.

One sees this connection embedded in the Malay language, where words of Arabic origin often acquire an aura of intrinsic religiosity.

The word “kitab,” for example, may just refer to a normal “book” in Arabic, but in Malay it refers specifically to religious books, while secular books are simply “buku,” from the English. Something similar is happening here with “Allah.”

The claim that “Allah” is somehow especially Islamic is disproved at least by the fact that the word itself predates Islam.

Any argument that it has become Islamic over time is further disproved by the fact that it remains in use today by Arab Christians and Indonesian Catholics.

The dogged adherence to this claim by a small number of firebomb-wielding extremists is only explicable when we understand how sensitively most Malays are invested in themselves as Muslims.

But one might consider that if Malays were really interested in being more “Malay,” they should in fact use the word “Tuhan,” which is much more “Malay” for having deeper regional roots. “Allah,” after all, is an imported name for an imported god.

Rachel Leow doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge.

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