A hundred names

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Muslims in mosques from Quiapo to Cotabato call Divinity “Allah.” In Cebu Daily News, an imam writes a weekly column on his faith. Liberty of faith and speech are constitutionally-buttressed rights here.

Muslims form five percent of the population, Catholics 83 percent and Iglesia ni Kristo 2.3 percent.In next-door Malaysia, “Allah means God—unless you’re a Christian” notes Time magazine. Or Sikh, Hindu or atheist. Only Muslims may invoke “Allah” says a new court decision. Yet, four years back, KL courts ruled that “Allah” transcended different faiths.Why this flip-flop? “Islam (is) vulnerable to conversion efforts by other faiths,” the decision says. Allah was “not an integral part… in Christianity.”

No? Herald editor Fr. Lawrence Andrew will appeal. Non-Muslim Malaysians were livid. “Appalling,” snapped Jagir Singh of the Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism. Sabah and Sarawak churches, where Christians are a majority, protested. Bahasa-speaking Christians used “Allah” even before the formation of Malaysia. They’ll continue to invoke “Allah” and use “Al-Kitab”—the Bahasa bible, allowed by Malaysia’s Parliament in 2011.

These rekindled 2007’s uproar when government confiscated 15,100 bibles. Printed in Indonesia, the text used “Allah.” The High Court, however, shredded that ban in December 2009. And non-Muslim places of worship, including Sikh temples, were ransacked.

In Geneva, the 17th UN Commission on Human Rights last week grilled Malaysia. This Universal Periodic Review was second for Malaysia since 2009. Austria and others prodded KL to allow freedom to practice, even change religions. Keep your pledge to abolish the 1948 Sedition Act and Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, the US urged Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak: These laws leash media through permits.

“The fear is Muslims will start practicing Christianity if both groups refer to God by the same name,” Waleed Aly wrote in Sydney Morning Herald. Do Malaysian Muslims need a form of protection from their own ignorance?

“Young, educated, urban Malays in particular are deserting this brand of politics in droves. They’re becoming increasingly skeptical of their own privileged status. Upwardly-mobile, they are unlikely to be swayed by a Mecca-oriented compass.”

Not the “old guard Malays. (Yet) they confront the fact that the privileged position they’ve held for the first 50 years of Malaysian independence won’t hold for the next 50. Now they’re lashing to resist the death throes of their supremacy.”

That “supremacy” remains law for now. “Islam is the religion of the federation but other religions may be practiced in peace,” Malaysia’s Constitution says. Malaysia signed the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 undergirds “freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”

 

Are ethnic Malays exempted? They make up two-thirds of the country’s 28 million people. Chinese and Indians number 22 percent and 7 percent respectively. About 9 percent are Christian.

Religious intolerance can trigger strife, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned. “Public debate cannot be on whose religion is right and whose is wrong,” but on rational considerations of public interest.

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population (205 million) or 13 percent of the world’s Muslims. But “no one, who believes in the power of one supreme God can claim exclusivity,” warned Endy Bayuni, Jakarta Post senior editor. “There is no such thing as the God for Catholics… or Allah for Muslims.”

“Indonesia and Malaysia may rightfully claim to have developed a more moderate strand of Islam. But there’s a thin line dividing tolerance and intolerance. So we should not take this moderation for granted.”

The claim to a monopoly on “Allah” is absurd, wrote opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Wall Street Journal. “Arabic’s sister Semitic languages” used similar words for the Deity, namely ‘Elaha’ in Aramaic and ‘Elohim’ in Hebrew. “Historical manuscripts prove Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews collectively prayed to God… as Allah for over 1,400 years.”

Go into any church in the Middle East and you will hear: “Quddusan Allah, Quddusan al-Qawi” (Holy God, Holy and Strong), the Economist notes. “They’ve been doing so for centuries.”

Kuala Lumpur’s ruling party and United National Malays Organization welcomed the court straitjacket. “This is to appease extremist supporters after the party scraped through with a thin majority,” wrote Parliamentarian Mujahid Yusof Rawa, The parties play the “radical and religious card” to woo votes.

“Move to another country,” suggested spokesperson Abdullah Zaik Rahman to those who disagreed with the Court. You “no longer accept supremacy of Islam.”

No, former law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim told Malay Mail. “We should instead get (these hardliners) to move over to Saudi Arabia. There, sovereignty of Islam is not questioned. We have become a nation we were not.”

The “beginning of wisdom is to call all things by their right names,” an Asian proverb teaches. “God Of A Hundred Names” is the title of a book on prayers of various faiths culled from the world’s major faiths. They all revere the Divinity’s names.

 

Jews would not address God directly. Muslims have 95 other names for Allah. And many were scandalized when Jesus taught his disciples: “Say Our Father…” Abba. Tatay. Dad. Ama.