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.