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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Poll Position Pit-Stop: Mid-poll Results & Some Analysis

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This post is only partly about the poll that is currently running – it will also look at the issues surrounding this big fuss over semantics and labeling. Yes, that’s what it pretty much boils down to, Walski’s decided.

But first, thanks to all who have participated in the current Poll Position opinion poll, which asks your opinion about the usage of the word “Allah”. The response has been beyond expectations, truth be told. And for that, Walski has to profusely thank Marina M., Unscientific Malaysia, and, for hosting the poll.

As of the time of posting, close to 2,500 persons have registered their opinion.

Results from, image hosting by Photobucket(click on image to view results on poll site)

It’s heartening to note that the majority feel the word “Allah” may be used for all, and not exclusive for Muslims. A further breakdown, however, is where it gets interesting. Of course, it’s not a really scientific survey, but Walski thinks that it does mirror the reality of how most Malaysians feel.

In any case, the poll will remain open until next Friday, so there’s ample time to register your opinion, if you haven’t yet.

Related to this issue is, of course, the attacks on the four churches (the fourth being the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in PJ [via The Malaysian Insider]) in the Klang Valley yesterday. Which brings us to what Walski wants to focus on for the rest of this post – what are the REAL issues surrounding the “Allah” issue?
(delving into the issues, and more, in the full post)

On the surface, it would appear that the angst and agitation we are witnessing surround theology and religion. And that seems to be the argument articulated by most of those who are against the High Court decision pertaining to the usage of “Allah” by The Herald.

And that argument says, pretty much, that the word “Allah” is for the exclusive use of Muslims, and Muslims alone.

Image from Malaysiakini, hosting by Photobucket The problem with this argument is that there is enough scriptural and real-world evidence to suggest otherwise.

It wouldn’t be practical for Walski to include and rehash all opinions that have been voiced. He will, however, give you two contrasting articles, as examples.

The first is an article written by one Dr. Khalif Muammar, published at (official website for PEMBELA, a coalition of Muslim conservatives formed to “defend Islam”), which attempts to present why non-Muslims cannot use the word Allah (emphasis by myAsylum).

The fact is that the word Allah even though it was used before Islam, it has been Islamized, the meaning of it is no longer the same as before. By permitting non Muslim to use it we actually doing deislamization. We are reverting the course which was done by our Prophet. Hence, we will be responsible for making more Muslim become confused. Professor Wan Mohd Nor says the context of Arabs and the Malay world is different, non Muslim in our land especially did not use the word Allah before this, there is no such word in their language before, in the original work they called it Yahweh, why not they call tuhan Yahweh. Therefore, it is evident that this issue is brought to confuse the Muslims. They wanted Allah become the name of other gods as well. The fact is that our God is not the same as the god of Christianity, their god can have son, it is a humanized god.

Nevermind that the argument closely mirrors the schoolyard-like “my Allah is bigger than your God” banter – a more important question is this: does this argument mirror reality?

In an article written in 2007, Dr. Farish Noor, whom at the time was in Cairo, had this to say:

What is most striking to the outside observer like me - though rather banal for the Egyptians themselves - is the fact that in all these celebrations ranging from Eid for the Muslims to Christmas for the Catholics and Copts the word ‘Allah’ is used to denote that supreme and singular divinity, God. Catholics and Copts alike exclaim ‘Masha-allah’, ‘Wallahi’, ‘ya-Rabbi’, ‘Wallah-u allam’, and of course ‘Allahuakbar’ day in, day out, everywhere they go. The coptic taxi driver blares out ‘By Allah, cant you see where you are parking??” as he dodges the obstable ahead. The Catholic shopkeeper bemoans “Ya Allah, ya Allah! You can only offer me two pounds for the scarf? Wallahi, my mother would die if she heard that! Ya-Rabbi, ya-Rabbi!”
(source: The American Muslim)

Back to the Dr. Khalif Muammar article for a bit – the opening paragraph states something very important:

There is no nas qat’i (conclusive/definitive evidence) from the Qur’an and the Sunnah on this matter. All the evidences put forward by those who permit it, do not show that it is permissible for non Muslim to use the word Allah. Since there is no conclusive evidence from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, this matter falls under zanniyyat, something which is based on human discretion. Muslim scholars need to base their argument on historical, epistemological, theological and semantic analysis. There will be right and wrong opinions depend on who has the strong argument. Definitely wisdom and in-depth analysis must be stressed, and not just literal interpretation. Although there is no conclusive evidence this does not mean that we cannot reach certainty in dealing with this issue.

By Dr. Khalif’s own admission, then, it’s up to “human discretion”. And if you read the entire article, it becomes clear that PEMBELA has made up their mind that the word “Allah” is exclusively for Muslims – at their discretion. And yes, the standard-issue arguments against liberalism, of “confusing Muslims” and blaming the West, are all thrown in for good measure.

Even more precarious is the suggestion that Muslims and Christians (plus everyone else) worship different gods. And for a Muslim, that is a very slippery slide of a path to take. But that’s a theological dead horse, in his opinion, and one which Walski has no intention to flog any further in this post.

So, it’s pretty clear there is no scriptural evidence to suggest that non-Muslims cannot use the word “Allah”. And since “Allah” is, after all, an Arabic word, and is used in the Middle East by just about all Arabs, what really is the big deal?

The answer, he thinks, lies in a very honest and telling blog post, written by Sakmongkol AK47, a blogger whom Walski has a lot of respect for. The following are excerpts from a posting on January 3, 2010, entitled “O Allah, is this our fin de siècle?”. Walski has chosen these excerpts because he feels that these are at the core of the real issue surrounding the agitated response to the High Court decision, and the subsequent angst amongst many Malaysian Muslims (emphasis by myAsylum).

In the Malaysian context, Allah has always been the god of Islam. Whose religion is this? It is the religion of the Malays. It is the religion of 15-16 million Malaysians as opposed to the religion of between 850,000 to 1 million Catholics. The judgment offends the sensibilities of 15-16 million people. It is causing much grief and resentment.

Is victory over the usage of the word Allah here in Malaysia, a form of satisfaction-giving retribution to the Malays? To the triumphalists, this legal victory is one form of saying FU! right into the face of the 'stupid' Malay?

                                                  ------ // ------

Indeed, Islam and Malay are synonymous. A Malay is defined as one who speaks the Malay language, practices Malay culture and adopts Islam as his religion. Hence when you make judgment on Allah which is the god of Islam here in Malaysia, you are also judging on the Malay. By taking over the term Allah, what have you done?

You take over the very being of a Malay.

                                                  ------ // ------

You do that at what costs? Has the judge applied her mind on the costs that may arise out of this judgment? At the end of the day, this victory savored by the Catholics here in Malaysia, may in fact be just a Pyrrhic or Cadmean victory.

It is simply incredible to expect 16 million Malay Muslims to tolerate that decision. You may say the word Allah has been used for the last 400 years and what not. Or you may even say, just to win points in an argument, that Arabs don't have issue with the usage of the term Allah by non Muslim Arabs. But we are not in the Middle east and thankfully so. We are in Malaysia where we must learn to accept reality.

                                                  ------ // ------

The reality is the court ruling is perceived as a direct challenge and affront to the sense of Muslim. Malays cannot understand the insistence that Catholics be allowed to use the term Allah when referring to their god. In practice, Allah has always been associated with the religion of Islam and to read some esoteric meaning into it so that it can be treated as a universal term by Christians here is simply wrong.

It is wrong because it will be interpreted as designed to cause offense to Muslim sensitivity. We can't expect 16 million Muslims to sit idly by and accept the ruling without coming up in arms. Do Catholics in Italy, France refer to God as Allah?

(source: Sakmongkol AK47)

So, there you have it – the issue has little to do with theology, but with the Malay psyche. Right or wrong, as far as Islam is concerned, is almost irrelevant. To further support this assertion, one need not look further than to analyze which political bodies and NGOs are the ones that have been most vocal in their objection against the High Court decision.

Image from The Malaysian Insider, hosting by PhotobucketPost-Friday prayer protest in Shah Alam
(click on image to read The Malaysian Insider report)

It is all revolving around communal politics, folks. Islam is once again being used as a convenient tool to smoke-screen other agendas. The saddest part is that many Malay/Muslims don’t realize this, and have allowed themselves to be swayed, thinking it’s all about religion, and nothing else but religion.

In this particular case, it’s to protect the “Malay psyche”. But it’s a psyche that refuses to adapt to changing times and circumstances. It’s a psyche that has been way too protected, to the point of being detrimental to its own good. It’s a psyche that’s constantly being bombarded with incessant fear, some of which, in turn, embeds itself permanently.

And in the final analysis, this protection serves one important purpose – keeping a certain demographic trapped in their status quo, with no hope for real and meaningful change.

Azmi Sharom, a columnist and law professor at Universiti Malaya, told Al Jazeera that "the unrest is not surprising because of the fact that the government has been pandering to these kinds of people for a long time".

He said the government allowed some groups to protest when others were banned because the main ruling Umno party - which depends on the Malay/Muslim demographic to remain in power - was "unwilling to do anything which would seem to go against what they think is the Malay/Muslim desire".

"This is a noisy demographic and it is potentially dangerous for Umno to alienate them, so this will be a real test for Najib's administration," he said.

(source: Aljazeera)

And there is one other final reason why Walski thinks that it’s more about communal politics, than about religion – the fact that knowing very well the misfortune that had befallen their fellow Malaysians, the NGOs decided to go ahead with their protests yesterday, after the Friday congregational prayers. This, to Walski, was an act of sheer insensitivity and selfishness.

And such insensitivity has no part in the Islam that Walski knows. Regardless of what Awang Selamat, or the likes of Ibrahim Ali, may want you to believe. And while the NGOs have offered to provide protection to the churches (via Malaysiakini), the impression Walski gets is that this offer is not out of sincerity, but more out of guilt – it would’ve made a world of difference had you decided to call off the protests.

To the Christians in Malaysia, in particular the Catholics, Walski salutes your perseverance and patience, in light of the attacks carried out on your houses of worship. You could have very easily retaliated with force. Instead, you retaliated with prayer and forgiveness. And that is a valuable example for all to learn from.

It makes Walski wonder, what would the response have been if the tables had been turned, and mosques were the target instead.

To all Malaysians reading this, particularly the Muslims, there has been a petition started by Marina M. asking that you condemn any violent acts against peoples of other faiths. It is also heartening to note that 110 NGOs and 3 political parties have come out to unconditionally condemn the act of violence against the churches this week (via Aliran, HT to Anil Netto). Malaysiakini reports that the number of endorsees now stands at 121, as of last night.

After all, regardless of our heritage and beliefs, we are all passengers on this mothership called Malaysia.

"The lamps are different but the Light is the same"

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