Ethnic, religious issues entwined

In the late 1980s, when I was in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a friend suggested that I drive out into the desert near Jubail to see the oldest extant Christian church in the world.

In the late 1980s, when I was in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a friend suggested that I drive out into the desert near Jubail to see the oldest extant Christian church in the world. And there it was, surrounded by a chain-link fence to keep casual visitors and foreign archeologists out. Experts who saw the site before it was closed said that the church was built by Nestorian Christians, and was probably used from the fourth to the ninth century.

Its existence embarrassed the Saudi government, which prefers to believe that Arabia went straight from paganism to Islam. But it confirmed the assumption of most historians that Christianity was flourishing in the Arabian Peninsula in the centuries before the rise of Islam. So what did these Arabic-speaking Christians call God? Allah, of course.

I mention this because last week the Malaysian High Court struck down a three-year-old ban on non-Muslims using the word Allah when they speak of God in the Malay language. The court’s decision was followed by firebomb attacks on three Christian churches in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday night, and on Friday protesters at mosques in Kuala Lumpur carried placards reading “Allah is only for us.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the attacks on the churches, but he supports the ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in Malay and is appealing the High Court decision.

“We . . . have the right to use the word ‘Allah’,” said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, whose use of the word in its Malay-language edition triggered the crisis. Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang simply observed that “The term ‘Allah’ was used to refer to God by Arabic-speaking Christians before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed.”

Of course it was. Arabic-speaking Christians predate the rise of Islam by 300 years, and what else were they going to call God? The word “Allah” is a contraction of the Arabic definite article al- and the noun ‘ilah, which means god. In parts of ancient Arabia, it once referred to the creator-god (who was not the only god), but for a very long time it has meant the One God.

This Arabic word was imported into the Malay language by converts to Islam, which arrived in the region several centuries before Christianity. All ethnic Malays are considered to be Muslim under Malaysian law, but there are numerous Malay-speakers, especially in northern Borneo, who are Christian and not ethnically Malay. They also use the word Allah for God.

What’s the harm in that? Why are Malaysia’s Muslims so paranoid?

The real paranoia, alas, is ethnic.

Malaysia is an ethnic timebomb that has turned itself into a peaceful and prosperous country by a huge effort of will. The original population was mostly Malay, but under British rule huge numbers of Indian and Chinese immigrants were imported to work the mines and plantations. By independence, Malays were only 60 per cent of the population, and much poorer than the more recent arrivals. They resented the past, the present and the probable future.

After several bouts of savage anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rioting, the country arrived at its current, highly successful compromise. The Malays dominate politics, but the Chinese and the Indians thrive in trade and commerce — and most people understand that they are ultimately in the same boat, which is called Malaysia.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.