The “Allah” case in Malaysia


Paint bomb against the Virgin Mary in Kota Tinggi


Recently Malaysia has been at the centre of another controversy. After the fatwa against Yoga (in which it was suggested that Muslims were better to abstain from it), the sentence against Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno (who was condemned to strokes of an “Islamic” cane), and the severed cow heads left on an area awaiting the construction of a Hindu temple, today churches, and other non-Muslim places of worship, have been torched over the issue of whether non-Malay Muslims, and in particular Christians, can use the word ‘Allah’. The Malay government, controlled by UMNO, clearly supports the opinion that “Allah” is, at least linguistically, a Malay Muslim theo-semiotic possession, despite the word being Arabic. Yet to understand the present situation we need to look at how Muslim Malaysians make sense of their social political identity within the country.

To do so we must refer to Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia in which a ‘Malay’ is described as a Malaysian citizen, born to a Malaysian citizen, who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks Bahasa Melayu, adheres to Malay customs, and is domiciled in Malaysia or Singapore. Furthermore, the constitution, in article 152, defines some privileges for Bumiputra, the Muslim ethnic majority of the country.

The privileges, based on internal economic and social political  protectionism, have culminated in the so-called New Economy Policy, which, although officially terminated in the 1990s, still influences the relationship among the ethnic groups.  These policies, and such protectionism, are not recent. The British colonial rule of Malaya set precise ethno-religious boundaries, with a certain level of protection for the Muslim Bumiputra, which the independent nation, and its constitution and legislation, have ideologically maintained.

Although there is clear evidence that the majority Muslim Malays have benefited from such privileges and closed the social and economic gaps with the other ethnic populations, particularly the Chinese, the continued reliance upon protectionist measures has helped to create a general feeling that these privileges are essential to maintain the equality of  Muslim Malays vis-a-vis the non-Muslim Malaysians of other ethnic groups.

This way of thinking is arguably an internalization of British colonial opinions, in which Muslim Malays were seen as admirable for their artistic ability and beautiful “heritage”, but otherwise lazy by nature, unadapted to business and childish in their way of being. To the British, these negative descriptions were not made as criticisms but rather as statements of ‘natural’ fact. Hence, to preserve and protect this population, the British implemented particular protections, which at the end proved to be counterproductive in many respects.

We need this background information to understand the present issue over the name “Allah”. Of course, many commentators have decided to place this controversy within the context of ‘religious fanaticism’ and ‘Islamism’, or generally within the phenomenon of ‘religion’.

Although I do not deny that, in Malaysia, religion plays a role, it would be naive to believe that this is a theological discussion gone wrong. Rather, the controversy is rooted within the framework above. There are two main reasons that I want to highlight here.

The first has to do with the increasing challenges that UMNO faces politically. In the changing political landscape of Malaysia, UMNO needs to reinforce a solid political base of supporters. It could be said that the “Allah” controversy, and the decision of the government to support the legal action, was aimed at political ends as much as, if not more than, religious ones.  Indeed, the debate may well engage a new kind of UMNO supporter: young, unhappy with differences, fearful of local and global competition and very attached to those protectionist policies which the opposition appears to oppose.

The Christian church, then, becomes a symbolic target at which to direct the discontent and frustration, as well as fear, about an uncertain future in which previous privileges may be removed and competition felt sharper than ever before.  Although much more could be said about this, let us move to a second, more social anthropological aspect.

If we pay a second of attention to the ethnic composition of Christians, who officially account for 9.11% of the population, we may notice the diversity in ethnic profile. Differently from the case of Hinduism, which can be linked directly to Indian Malays, or Buddhism (the second religion in the country) to the Chinese, Christians are from all the main ethnic groups, with the number of Bumiputra Christians (8.9%  of the Christian population) being nearly equal to those of Chinese origin (9.6% of the Christian population), and not very distant from the number of Indian Christians (7.7 % of the Christian population).

The central fact here is that the relationship between ethnicity and religion is highly complex, despite appearing on the surface to be relatively direct. The convenient colonial divisions, in which ‘Bumiputra’ meant Muslim, are not valid here. We have an intra-ethnic, although unpublicized, division.

Here lies the basis for the theo-semiotic challenge, which appears rather absurd to a majority of Muslims and also in the context of the linguistic history of Bahasa Melayu. The word ‘Allah’ is seen here to be only for those Bumiputra who are Muslims. The monopoly of the Arabic signifier of the ‘signified’ God has become a logical conclusion to the protectionist and anachronistic Article 160 and 153 of the Malaysian constitution.

The relationship between the economic and social aspects of such protectionism (extending even to the domain of theology) is not as strange as it may appear at first glance. Malaysia is changing, as any other Southeast Asian country, and it is facing the same global challenges that any other population has to in this century, which is marked by so many ‘post-‘ concepts (post-communism, post-modern and so forth).

Yet the colonial ghost is still haunting the country and trying to conserve an ethnic-religious identity based upon privileges that, in reality, end up threatening Malaysia’s security and unity. If Malaysia does not eventually deconstruct the left-overs from  the colonial ideology and realize that the idea of ethnic and religious superiority (beyond contradicting Islamic teaching) is a burden of the past that stops the country’s development and damages its international reputation, it will remain mired in tragic, and sometimes tragic-comic, controversies.

In the long run, these controversies may endanger not only the racial and social harmony of Malaysia, but also – because of the epidemiological power of these religiously packaged controversies -neighboring countries such as Indonesia and perhaps, although with less likelihood, Singapore.

19 thoughts on “The “Allah” case in Malaysia

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  1. Please let me correct you the Malay is not ethnic to Malaysia. If he is ethnic to Malaysia can you please tell me which of his parents are from the jungle.

    The only ethnic people in Malaysia are the natives of Sarawak, and the natives of Peninsular Malaysia, referred to as “Orang Asli,” everyone else is an immigrant. The Chinese and Indians are mostly legal immigrants but probably the entire Malay population comprises illegal immigrants, that is the stark truth.

    That is why you have a strange definition of a Malay in the constitution, the makers of the constitution had toc come out with this to legitimise and illegal entity the so called Malay.

    The word Malay is derived from the Javanese word “Melayu”, which means run away and that precisely is what a Malay defined in the constitution of the country is.

    Prior to the formation of UMNO, Malays used to refer to themselves as, “orang Java,” ususally referred to the rest as Java Contra, orang medan, orang Minang, orang Sulaweisi, orang this and orang that.

    The Malays in Kelantan who really originated from Yunnan and who are Younnanese used to refer to the remaining so called Melayu in the peninsular as “orang asing,” or outsiders.

    The ethnic peoples of Malaysia are the Natives, the Jakun, the Orang laut, the Senoi, the negrito, the Dayak the Kadazaan, end other natives, so if there is to be a Bunmiputera it is this group and not the Melayu, who have used it and benifitted the most at the expense of the real Bumiputera.

    Prove me wrong, they are as recent as hang Tuah, of the Hang dynasty in China, form whom came the “Baba & Nonyak,” they are as recent as the, “Melaka Chitty” from whom came Parameswara himself, whoom now the great Malaysian historian to bend facts has changed to a Muslim.

    Hang Tuah was an ethnic Chinese of the Hang Dynasty, who came in later, earlier this prince called Parameswara, an Indian and a Hindu.

    Hang Tuah was conviniently turned into a legend and his name has been erased from our history books, the same way Parameswara got a Muslim name and became a Malay.

    History was changed because in Malaysia anything is possible, we do not have to go to far, Mahathir Moahammed became Malay, Sharizat became Malay, Nor Mohammed Yaackob is a Malay, and many many more.

    History will be rewritten to show that the first Malaysian to reach the peak of Everest was a Malay, does that make sense?

    Now the ethnic population of this country that is made up of our Orang Asli the majority of whom are non Muslim.

    Now the question that goes a-begging is; How did this country then be declared Islamic.

    1. Dear Frankly X’roy,
      to be honest your opinion is a minority one in ‘historical’ studies, and a quite misleading one as well.
      Yet I have another argument that I wish to discuss with you: According to your quite strange rationale, the real Italians would be the Romans and they were polytheists, people whom prayed to Zeus and so on.

      Then the immigrants from Israel came to the land of the Romans and its Empire, so that it became Christian. Hence, following your historical logic, the Christians in Italy and Europe are the immigrants, and many of them surely illegal. Should we, according to your way of ‘writing’ the history of Europe or maybe boot out the Vatican and replace it with Giano’s temple? I suppose this kind of rationale is quite useless.

      Then if you wish to criticize the use of the concept ‘ethnic’ and the ‘social and economic’ advantages in the name of ‘ethnic’ supremacism, well, this is another story. However, your argument does not seem to go towards such direction.

  2. “Differently from the case of Hinduism, which can be linked directly to Indian Malays”

    dear prof,

    Yours was an interesting blog to read. Just fyi,

    1. indian malays are by law muslims, as not hindus, as stated erroneousy by you. Please see JDsg;s comments.
    2. Not all bumiputras are muslim. there are ibans, bidayuhs etc that are non muslim – these bumiputras have long used the word allah to mean a supreme being

    please do check your terms and facts as errors like this diminishes your article’s credibility (and the credibility of the writer as well).

    p: i am amazed that you bothered to read that blog above. it contains what its name suggests. It was full of flawed logic and reasoning and I cannot bring myself to finish reading the firSt page, much less the other.

    1. Dear Starry Night,
      Thanks for your comment. About your point concerning Indian Malays being Muslim by-law instead of Hindu, I have asked a Malay official friend of mine, and he has informed me that this is not the case – so which ‘law’ are you referring to? I would like to have, if possible, a reference for this, since, if you are right, the official is wrong. Hindus are free to practice their religion (see also this book), although he did tell me that recently there have been some issues as far as marriage is concerned. At the same time, and you may know better than me, the Malaysian Constitution provides freedom of religion. There might be some practical problems, but at the level of theory, it is clearly written there.
      In any case, I was not speaking of “law” but ‘identities’ in both cases. As you can understand, they are two very different things! Your identity is never defined, for you as person, by law.
      About the second point: sure, not all Bumiputras are Muslim, yet the majority are, and the status of the animists of Borneo is, as you might know, a special one.
      Yet I understand both JD and your positions are more towards the ‘political’ realm instead of the social analytical.

  3. I am confused by your use of the phrase “non-Muslim Malaysians.” Malaysians must by law be Muslim. Non-Muslims, no matter their ethnicity, born in Malaysia are not legally Malaysian.

    Perhaps you meant to write “non-Muslims born in Malaysia.”

    1. Dear Bernie,

      whatever the law says cannot impose how people feel and perceive themselves, hence the ‘non-Muslim Malaysians’. The issue, as strange as it can be, of the nationality linked to Islam has been a product of the British colonialism, as any history book can explain. So, maybe it is time for Malaysia to move from the mirrors of colonialism rational and becomes a full nation based on idea of equality instead of imaginary enclavment.

      thanks for reading my blog

    2. Realizing this is an old comment I’m responding to…

      Bernie: It is not Malaysians but Malays who, by law, must be Muslim. There is a difference. Malaysians include people of Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicity, in addition to other ethnicities. Only the Malays are expected to be Muslim, although other ethnicities can be and are Muslim as well (e.g., Indians). But there are many, many non-Muslim Malaysians in Malaysia.

  4. nonsense, typical scholar making excuses for muslims killing and oppression people.

    Killing is killing, and to ignore the Quranic roots of such oppression is unscholarly.

  5. Prof,

    The gist of your article is that the ethno-religious hegemony of Umno led to this controversy over the use of Allah.

    To probe deeper, the root of the Allah issue is the mindset of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ of Umno Malays (at least the leaders). As Islam is synonymous with Malay this notion of superiority is transferred to Islam which must be above other religions and hence the name for God cannot be shared.

    Note that PAS and PKR Malays in general do not have any problem with other religions using Allah. From this we can infer that the Allah issue is firmly tied to the outdated and dangerous notion of racial superiority promoted by Umno.

      1. thank you Gabriel..

        I’m not sure if you’ve understood as some of my writings are done in the casual Malaysian English with a mix of local slangs…but I would be happy to discuss on the issue further should you require any clarification on the matter..


  6. Briefly (because it’s very late at night right now), another factor that’s influencing this controversy is the tensions between eastern and western Malaysia. Politically, the two sides don’t always see eye-to-eye and, since I wrote my own commentary on this case, I’ve begun to think more that both political tensions between Borneo and the Peninsula and cultural attitudes toward the “proprietary nature” of the word Allah have driven some (but certainly not all) of the controversy.

    1. Dear friend,
      Thanks for it. I think that about the tension concerning conversion you are very right. But the argument that using the word “Allah” can help to convert Muslims in areas where “they are less educated” can be also inverted: it could also help a Catholic Malay to convert to Islam.

      Indeed, some evangelists (both in Singapore and Malaysia, as well as elsewhere) insist that the “Allah” of Muslims is not a universal God but a specific deity of Arabia and the word should not be used for the only “real” God.

      Hence, we would need a very careful study to claim that just the use of a word (which is understood anyway to mean God) could lead to conversion to one religion or another. Moreover, religion is a free market today, and nobody can really think that censoring a word on a newspaper will stop conversion to other religions. The Internet, global movements and so forth put people in contact with lots of information and ideas.

      So, in the global village, protectionism is a very old fashioned system. Competition and marketing is what really wins. On this, a simple analysis can tell us that some Muslims are far in such respect, and the last case in Malaysia certainly will not help.

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