Malaysian church firebombings

Muslims angry over Christian use of the word "Allah" -- and why they shouldn't be

On Thursday night three churches in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, were firebombed in protest over a high court ruling that Christians could use the name "Allah" to refer to God in a Catholic newspaper.

The home ministry had banned the Herald from using the word in 2007 although, as its editor, Reverend Andrew Lawrence, told Time magazine:

We have been using the word for decades in our Malay-language Bibles and without problems.

You can find Time's very useful report on this here.

The problems, for those among the 60 per cent Muslim majority angered by the new ruling, are twofold: one, they claim that "Allah" should not be used by the members of any other religion; and two, they say that Muslims hearing the word used in a Christian setting may become confused, and that it is an underhand tactic to convert them. Never mind that converting from Islam to Christianity is a very difficult -- near-impossible -- business in Malaysia anyway. Sharia courts, which have equal status with civil courts when dealing with matters affecting Muslims, have refused to accept such conversions in the past, most notoriously in the sad case of Lina Joy. (There is no compulsion in Islam, as Mehdi Hasan correctly noted this week -- no one is forced to become a Muslim. Apostasy, however, is a different matter.)

But this is not about conversion.

This is about tolerance of difference, and whether it is under threat. And incidents like these violent attacks are sometimes used as ammunition by those who wish to paint Islam as being aggressive and narrow-minded. So it is important to point out that those who carried out the firebombings do not represent all Muslims, either in Malaysia or anywhere else; and that there are voices who dare speak up despite this kind of intimidation to argue precisely the opposite.

One such is my friend Marina Mahathir, a Malaysian columnist and activist on health and women's rights. I would like to reproduce below her thoughts on why no Muslim should worry about Christians using the name Allah for God:

1. A confident Muslim is unfazed by the issue of God's name. God speaks to all of humankind in the Quran and never said that only Muslims could call him by the name Allah.

2. A confident Muslim has 99 names to choose from to describe that One God. My favourites are Ar-Rahman (The All-Compassionate) and Ar-Rahim (The All-Merciful).

3. A confident Muslim never gets confused over which is his/her religion and which is other people's. For instance, a confident Muslim knows exactly what the first chapter of the Quran is. And it's not the Lord's Prayer.

4. A confident Muslim will not walk into a church, hear a liturgy in Malay or Arabic where they use the word "Allah" and then think that he or she is in a mosque. A confident Muslim knows the difference.

5. A confident Muslim is generous, inclusive and doesn't think that his or her brethren are made exclusive through the use of a single language. The confident Muslim is well aware that in the Middle East, all services of ANY religion are in Arabic because that's what they all speak.

6. A confident Muslim knows the basis of his/her faith are the five pillars of Islam and will not be shaken just because other people call God by the same name.

7. A Muslim believes in only One God. Therefore it makes sense that other people should call God by the same name because there is no other God.

ART THOU NOT aware that it is God whose limitless glory all [creatures] that are in the heavens and on earth extol, even the birds as they spread out their wings? Each [of them] knows indeed how to pray unto Him and to glorify Him; and God has full knowledge of all that they do. (Surah Nour, Verse 41) (Asad)

So I would ask those people demonstrating against the court decision, have you no pride? Are you saying you're easily confused?

I particularly like point seven.

Bravely put, Marina. (You can find more on her blog.) I just hope that readers will realise that there are many who agree with and support her. The action of a handful of extremists is a snapshot of a minority -- no one should assume, just because it makes the news, that it is in fact the whole picture.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.