02 January 2008

The names of God

We take it for granted that we should be able to call God by whatever name we choose to use. It's unthinkable to our western minds that such a personal thing should be subject to the whims of legislation.

But, this is one of the many illusions we've been disabused of during these travels. In Malaysia, at least in public worship and in press, there has been a governmental push to prevent Christians from using the word "Allah" to refer to God.

The reasoning? The use of the word "Allah" by Christians is "designed to confuse Muslims." Those wily Catholics!

This assertion is notwithstanding the fact that the word itself is used by Arabic-language speakers of all three Abrahamic faiths and was probably used within the Arabic world before the arrival of Islam (thereby confusing the pre-Muslims of the time, poor souls.) But, there's a bigger problem: see, there really isn't another word in many languages for God. In Bahasa Malaysia, for example, Allah means god, and Tuham, the word that the government is allowing the publications and churches to use, means lord; it can be used of political leaders as well. So, preventing non-Muslims from using the word may be tantamount to an Orwellian attempt at curtailing religious conceptions of God. (Yes, you're welcome to argue with me on the merits of linguistic determinism, but still, it's worth mentioning).

Regardless of the reasoning, though, what's most striking is that a nation so economically and politically advanced should be so subject to the vagaries of theocracy and racial politicking. It's not just the Christians either: while we were in Malaysia, for example, the capital was wracked by demonstrations led by Hindu groups claiming underrepresentation in a country that is only 60% Malay. (Don't even get me started on what the Malaysian constitution requires for you to be considered Malay.) The demonstrations were followed by voluminous editorials detailing exactly how "embarrassing" they were, how the lawyers that led them were a blight on their profession, and how of course there was no discrimination in Malaysia. How could there be?

It was hard not to be shocked.

I would be remiss not to mention, however, that, sometime between the time I started writing this post and the time I finished editing it (oh, the timing!), The Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur's office sued The Ministry of Internal Security. The latter appears to have backed down and permitted the use of the word "Allah" in the Catholic Herald for at least another year. It's unclear to me what happened to the churches similarly affected.

Meanwhile, after spending time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Taichung, Manila, and Palau with friends and family, we've finally crossed the equator for the first time this trip. We're currently in Cairns, where we've had to figure out the haphazard flipping that entails driving on the other side of the road (you're sitting on the right, sure, but the gear-shift is still ordered from left to right, and the pedals are still right-foot dominant; the blinkers, lights, and windshield wipers, though, have been swapped. I can't tell you how many times we've accidentally expelled wiper fluid instead of telling the bemused drivers behind us that we're turning).

And, despite finding ourselves blinded by the ubiquitous beach culture, the diving here is unbelievably spectacular. It almost makes you forget exactly how many pasty-white, over-fed, poorly-tattooed, shirtless bellies you find yourself subjected to.

Perhaps that should be subject to the whims of legislation.

1 comment:

Vivek said...

Nice summary of the "Allah" brouhaha!

Yes, I just wanted to write a sentence with that silly rhyme.

That, and I really did enjoy the post.