I’m sure many of you have been reading the recent string of articles about Christian churches being firebombed in KL, and are wondering what the ruckus is all about. Well it’s complicated. I can do no better than quote from Gwynne Dyer’s recent article on the subject. Once again, it is a Canadian journalist that seems to be able to take the longer and more balanced view.

In the late ’80s, 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. Its existence embarrassed the Saudi government, which prefers to believe that Arabia went straight from paganism to Islam. It confirms 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. 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. Parliamentary Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang simply observed, “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.

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, and are legally forbidden to convert by criminal sanction, 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 time bomb 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 percent 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 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.

The state spends a lot of money to raise the living standards of the Malays, and gives them preference for housing, university placement and government jobs. They haven’t done badly out of this deal, but nevertheless they feel perpetually insecure. Since they are all Muslims, while few other Malaysians are, they also feel their religion is under threat. Some respond by being aggressively intolerant of minorities.

Not all Malays behave this way. Major Muslim organisations, including the Islamic political party, PAS, have agreed that the other “Abrahamic religions”–Christians and Jews– may call their God Allah in Malay. But it’s getting ugly, and it’s high time for the Malaysian government to stop playing along with the extremists. The Christians, Hindus, animists, and others who make up 40 percent of Malaysia subsidize the poorer Malay-Muslim majority. Few of them will ever convert to Islam, but they are not its enemy either. Malaysia has achieved a fragile but workable compromise that gives its people a good life. It should not endanger it so frivolously.

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