COMMENT In the week leading up to the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) on Jan 2, Malaysiakini had 11 news items, and The Star Online only four, on the ‘Allah’ ban.
Conversely, Malaysiakini had 77 pieces, and The Star 42, on rising prices, government overspending, and the Dec 31 Turun protest against price hikes.
In the week following the seizure of copies of the Bible and arrest of two BSM office-bearers, however, the ratios had been reversed. Religious news items had exploded: 79 in Malaysiakini and 54 inThe Star. The coverage of economic mismanagement had dwindled to 30 articles in Malaysiakini and 35 in The Star.
Suaram wondered on Jan 4 whether the ‘Allah’ copyright issue had been a “politically calculated move to divert public attention” from the rising cost of living and the defiant Turun movement.
The Home Ministry answered, on Jan 8, by declaring Comango - a human rights coalition encompassing Suaram - “illegal” and “un-Islamic”.
The spotlight on Premier Najib Abdul Razak’s clampdown on news weekly The Heat, his wife Rosmah Mansor’s use of an Airbus luxury private jet, and his stepson Riza Shahriz’s Hollywood lifestyle, has now shifted briefly to the Malayan Inquisition against Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Catholic The Heraldnewspaper.
Even so, Najib has failed to conceal the growing divisions and infighting in Umno. Former premier Mahathir Mohamad has diligently used social media and press conferences to undermine Najib. He is escalating his attempts to dislodge the Umno president, and to clear space at the top for Mahathir loyalist Muhyiddin Yassin, and Mahathir’s unpopular son Mukhriz, the Kedah Menteri Besar.
Mahathir has also joined in the mob attack on Father Lawrence, while Mukhriz has parroted his father’s claim to a monopoly over a string of Arabic words. Mahathir is now instigating his simple-minded worshippers, by claiming that what Father Lawrence had said “hurts Muslims”.
Christians see through ‘Allah’ farce
Umno needs a melodrama to divert attention from our rakyat’s stagnant incomes and soaring food prices - conditions that toppled free-spending leaders such as Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
As Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, the Hollywood producer, would know, any drama needs some conflict. And so, when Father Lawrence said on Dec 27 that Malay-speaking Christians would continue to use the word ‘Allah’ in their worship, as they had done for centuries, Selangor Umno’s pantomime actors read their lines on cue.
They threatened to amass at the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Klang on Jan 5. I went along to the handsome old church, consecrated in 1928, for the 12.15 noon service, in Malay. There was a scrum of television crews at the entrance, filming the action. But the service passed without the advertised angry mob scene.
Afterwards, I talked to church-goers. Vernon Adrian Emuang (left), a corporate trainer and a highly regarded (real) actor, usually goes to St Ignatius in Kuala Lumpur.
He had come to Klang because he had heard that progressive Muslim activists had gathered to show solidarity with the Catholics. He had joined them, to show appreciation for their gesture.
He had never attended Mass in Malay before. “I was sitting there and I was feeling really patriotic. So actually having the Bahasa Malaysia language being used in a Mass is a good thing.”
He viewed the threats of intimidation by Selangor Umno and affiliated NGOs as outrageous. It was BN (Barisan Nasional) Muslims - and not Muslims per se - who were against the use of ‘Allah’, he explained, and the entire issue had become a political football.
“You can see how PAS has taken a stand on this. I do not think Malay Muslims who are not BN supporters would fall for this stupidity and arogance. (BN Muslims) think that they can create fear and confusion and chaos. The word is out that this is to create a kind of terrorism in Selangor, that might give the federal government an opportunity to move in and assert power and control.”
The ban would clearly influence voting in Sabah and Sarawak, he pointed out. Malay Muslims - and Muslims of all kinds - in Borneo have spoken out and voiced their disagreement with Umno’s ban.
‘Never a problem’ in Sabah
Sabahans Joevellysia, a homemaker, and Daniel, an engineer working in Klang, had sat through the Mass in Malay with their two cherubic children. They had attended the same service as usual, despite the reports of Umno protests.
“We were worried, yes,” Joevellysia admitted, speaking in Malay. “We did feel unhappy coming to church, and unsafe. We were afraid that the protesters would cause a riot. But we came anyway, because we come every Sunday to pray.”
“To find some peace of mind,” Daniel added, with some irony. “We’ve always used Malay in our prayers, and ‘Allah’, in Sabah as well,” Joevellysia said. “This issue isn’t a problem at all in Sabah, maybe because we’re more open.”
Joevellysia said she counted many Muslims among her own family members. “We can gather together, at a celebration party, all mixing together.”
She showed no hesitancy when asked if any of her Muslim relatives had ever objected to Christians’ use of the word ‘Allah’ for God: “Never. My (Muslim) uncle here (in peninsular Malaysia), my aunts who’re Muslim... it’s never a problem.”
The melodrama may have dominated the headlines for a few days, but when all the Umno protesters have gone home, Premier Najib will still face a crippled economy and a split party.
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org