Last December, the Malaysian High Court ruled that the Herald, a weekly Catholic magazine, was allowed to use the Arabic word "Allah" to refer to God in its Malay-language section. The decision overturned a government ban on non-Muslim use of the term and was met with protests in Kuala Lumpur's central mosque and decried online in numerous Malay Muslim chat rooms. In the days following the announcement, arsonists set fire to as many as eight churches around the country. Subsequently, several Muslim prayer halls were also attacked.

The arson attacks have caused a round of soul-searching among Malaysians, who are fond of celebrating their country's rich religious and racial diversity but who have seen its politics become increasingly sectarian in recent decades. Left unaddressed, these trends could undermine the delicate sociocultural balance in one of the Muslim world's most developed nations and deal a fatal blow to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's goal of national unity.

For many Muslims in the region, Christian use of the word "Allah" is relatively unproblematic. Jesus, who lived six centuries before Islam was founded, would most likely have used a similar Aramaic word, "Alah," in reference to God. In fact, the Arabic word "Allah" shares the same root as the Aramaic "Alah" as well as the Hebrew "Elohim." It is derived from two words, namely "Al," meaning "the" and "Elah" meaning God. In this sense, it can be argued that "Allah," "Elohim," and "Alah" or "Elah" are closely linked.

Today, the word "Allah" is used by Muslims and many Christians alike. When the Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrate their Christmas Mass, for example, their pope begins his sermon with the phrase "Bismillah" (in the name of God) and uses the word "Allah" throughout. In Southeast Asia, Catholics and Protestants use the term "Allah"; Indonesian Christians have sung prayers to Allah at every Easter and Christmas celebration since the arrival of Christianity on those islands a millennium ago.

The term is as important to Arab and Southeast Asian Christians as it is to Muslims because it stands for the notion of a singular, universal God. "Allah" literally means "the God," denoting a singular deity. This is particularly significant for Christians in Malaysia, who have been reluctant use the Malay "Tuhan," because the word does not have a monotheistic connotation. It even has a plural form, "Tuhan-tuhan," which is understood as "gods."

The common belief in a singular, universal God should bind Muslims and Christians in Malaysia together. But in Malaysia it has had an opposite, polarizing effect. This state of affairs is a consequence of three decades of Islamization in the country, a process that has effectively constricted the social and political space available to the country's
significant non-Malay, non-Muslim communities. Even before the court ruling, many Malay-Muslim NGOs and lobby groups were discouraging Christians from using "Allah," claiming that Christians were using it to proselytize to Muslims.

In Malaysia, where approximately 60 percent of the population is Muslim and virtually all the Muslims are ethnic Malay, there is a history of conflating religious identity with ethnicity and citizenship. According to the Malaysian constitution, one of the chief criteria for a person to be "Malay" is for him or her to be Muslim. This relationship is so intimate
that when a person converts to Islam, he or she is said to have masuk melayu or "become a Malay."

As the role of Islam in public life has grown over the past two decades, the other two pillars of Malay identity--language and royalty--have weakened. In the 1970s, the political elite gave the Malay language primacy in the national education system in order to protect the privileged status of Malays. But since then, the use of the language has spread to all ethnicities and is no longer the exclusive property of Malays. At the same time, the stature of Malaysian royalty, who have traditionally been ethnically Malay, has lessened. The political elite have wrested legitimacy from the monarchy, which they see as political competition. Moreover, the royalty have undermined their own status with numerous scandals, including allegations of abuse of power and human rights. In part, these scandals led to a 1983 constitutional amendment that effectively curtailed both the need for royal assent in order for legislation to become law and the sultan's power to declare a state of emergency. As a result of the above factors, there has been a slow shift toward religion as a primary marker of Malay identity--now many Malays see themselves first as Muslims.

Although Malaysia's constitution guarantees freedom of worship for non-Muslims, it enshrines Islam as the country's sole official religion. Even further, constitutional provisions such as Article 121 1(A) give Islamic shari'a law equal status to civil law for Muslims on matters such as marriage and inheritance.

Since the early 1980s, the ruling United Malays National Organisation Party (UMNO) has amassed power by vowing to safeguard Malay rights; invariably this has meant preserving the status of Islam, setting the country on a path of Islamization. The party has introduced legislation, such as laws against apostasy, to govern the social and cultural expression of Malay identity and has engaged in political one-upmanship with the hardline Islamic opposition, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). At the same time, the party has pushed the concepts of ketuanan melayu (Malay primacy) and bumiputra rights--literally rights for sons of the soil--to protect the status of Malays in politics and economics. Even as the Islamist opposition recently toned down its virulent religious politicking, the UMNO's has persisted.

Malaysia's federal system has allowed for local state governments to promote Islamic strictures. This arrangement is a result of colonial-era decisions: even as the British tightened their control over the Malay sultanates, they made the important--if at the time merely symbolic--concession that local sultans could remain heads of religion in their own states. The adoption of this tradition into Malaysia's modern constitution has effectively handed control over religious matters to local mufti, religious departments, and state administrations, which operate independently of the federal government. The consequence is that state religious authorities enjoy freedom from the central government to dictate the parameters of Muslim religious life. One extreme case is legislation that prohibits Muslims from converting--an act that is deemed a crime and is punishable by law in many states.

Now Islam has taken center stage in the Malaysian political realm. In relation to non-Muslims, it is defended as a protected religion and race; within the Malay community it is used to garner authority and legitimacy. Externally, the Malaysian use of Islam was a means of gaining stature in the Muslim world, especially with those who dismissed the country as secular because of its perceived liberal attitudes: at a 1997 conference in Saudi Arabia former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad openly contested the Arab world's perception of Malaysia as secular, contending that "many Muslims will of course disagree with us and try to make out that we are 'secular.'... But we believe and we are equally convinced in our beliefs that what we do is in the service and in accord with Islam."

Against this backdrop, it was highly predictable that the Malaysian government filed an appeal against the recent High Court ruling and could do little stop the Malay protests about the Herald case. It is also unsurprising that much of the Malay political leadership and royalty have urged Christians to refrain from using the term "Allah," on the grounds that such use would hurt the sensitivities of the Malay Muslim population.

But in the controversy over the use of the term "Allah," there is far more at stake than sensitivities or proprietary rights to terminology. Indeed, the controversy touches on the fundamental organizing principle of Malaysian politics and society--Malay ethno-religious primacy--which has begun to erode over the years. As Prime Minister Razak and his advisors labor over the question of national unity, the "Allah" controversy and the church-burning incidents reveal the obstacles he faces and just how far away the country is from reaching his goal.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JOSEPH CHINYONG LIOW is Associate Dean and Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is author of Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia.
  • More By Joseph Chinyong Liow