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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage