Image source: The Guardian
Malaysia is in the news again for the usual reasons: nine churches firebombed by radical Muslims in the last week, on account of a rising controversy over the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians. A Catholic weekly paper, The Catholic Herald, was ordered by the government to cease publishing its Malay-language edition until the courts resolved the question of its use of the word ‘Allah’ to mean the God of the Christian faith. The question was resolved in High Court, which ruled in favour of the Herald. A week after the ruling, nine churches were torched over three days. Molotov cocktails were involved. The High Court ruling has been suspended pending appeal.
This semantic quibble can seem baffling to non-Malaysians, but the sad truth is that the event is wholly explicable within the context of Malaysian social dynamics. It seems to me that the trouble arises out of a potent (Molotov) cocktail of two factors: 1) the troubling relationship that exists between ‘Malay’ and ‘Muslim’ in Malaysia, and 2) the relationship that this hybrid ‘Malay-Muslim’ has with the rest of Malaysian society. First, some thoughts on the word Allah; then, on the Molotov cocktail of Malaysian society.
In the Beginning was the Word
First of all, it should be made clear that there are at least two words for ‘God’ in Malay (apart from, you know, the 99 names of God): Allah, and Tuhan. The first is from Arabic: a Semitic word for the divine, combining the definite article al- (the one) with the root word -ilah, meaning ‘god’. The root ilah can be compared with the Northwest Semitic el of Elohim, the Hebrew word for divinity.
The second and probably older word in the region, Tuhan, seems to share a common etymology with the Austronesian word atua, or te atua in Maori, meaning god (no particular one – the Maori were broadly animist). The link isn’t surprising. Malay is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian language tree, and many other linguistic commonalities run throughout the region: Indonesian, Micronesian, Polynesian and Philippine languages are all relatively closely related. Tuhan probably also has something in common with the Malay word tuan, which roughly means lord or master (as in, Joseph Conrad’s Tuan Jim, or Lord Jim).
Both words have been in use in Malay, more or less interchangeably, throughout its written history. Even on the famed Terengganu Inscription Stone (Batu Bersurat Terengganu), which is the earliest extant evidence of Islam on the Malay peninsula and dates to around 1303, the word ‘Allah’ appears three times, and the word ‘Tuhan’ twice.
Malay, Muslim, Same Diff
What has animated the whole controversy is the claim by the ruling government that the word ‘Allah’ is something especially Islamic, and by extension, exclusively Malay. The trouble comes at “by extension”. Under the Federal Constitution, a Malay is defined as a person who 1) is born to a Malaysian citizen, 2) professes to be Muslim, 3) speaks the Malay language, 4) adheres to Malay custom, and 5) is domiciled in Malaysia. Here’s the important part: Malay citizens who convert out of Islam are no longer considered constitutionally Malay, even if they were born to a Malaysian, speak Malay, adhere to Malay custom and live in Malaysia.
This bizarre, calcified mess of legal status, religion, language and ‘custom’ is almost entirely a product of colonial governance. The definition comes from a Land Reservation Act from 1913, which the British passed in an attempt to delineate which people should benefit from state land protectionism. But over time, the definition proved both politically expedient (the British gained a lot of colonial mileage out of professing to be looking after ‘the Malays’) and psychologically central to Malay self-perception (‘the Malays’ came to see themselves as a coherent cultural entity). The result is that today this definition is no longer only politically useful; it has become true for many Malays, and it is what their sense of identity rests on. And that identity is geographic, linguistic, cultural, and yes, religious.
Malay-Muslims vs. the World
The second factor is the relationship of Malay-Muslims to the rest of Malaysian society. One might ask: why is Islam such an important element of Malay identity, given the other four constitutional components?
The answer here, I feel, is demographic, and one can see that by comparing Malaysia with Indonesia. Indonesia has always been much more racially confident of itself than Malaysia, even though at times this confidence has led to terrible tragedies. Across Indonesia, visible ethnic minorities remain minorities, and are today often deeply assimilated. The Chinese population, to name the usual suspect, is small — only about 3-5% of the population. And Indonesian Christians, I’ll add, have no trouble using the word ‘Allah’:
Image source: Malaysia Today
In contrast, Malaysia is a much more heterogenous society, with ‘Malays’ making up around 60% of the population, ethnic Chinese somewhere around 25 to 30% and ethnic Indians, mostly Tamils but also some Sikhs, around 8%. This has led to a certain amount of racial insecurity. Over the decades of last century, various Malay groups have made various sorts of overtures to Indonesia in order to try to tap into the demographic advantages of Indonesia’s enormous, ethnically Malay population. The ejection of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, it has been argued, had in part to do with fears over the large number of ethnic Chinese in Singapore that would become part of Malaysia, while the inclusion of British Borneo into the Federation in 1963 was arguably an attempt to beef up the ‘ethnic Malay’ numbers. In the 1940s, a group of Malay nationalists almost managed to negotiate Malaysia into sharing Indonesia’s independence when the Japanese Occupation ended: a thwarted vision of “a nation that would consolidate a hundred million brown peoples into a single Republic of Malaysia” (Taufik Abdullah, 1997:257).
But the fact remains that Malaysia has always been more interested in hooking up with Indonesia (and other regional Malays) than vice versa. Today, Malay Malaysians are on their own, in a very multicultural Malaysia. The proximity of multiculturalism, I think, has created a lot of incentive for Malays to differentiate themselves, and to hang on tightly to those differences. And in Malaysia, of the five constitutional elements of ‘Malayness’ I listed above from the 1913 definition, only two remain which are not now widely shared by all Malaysian citizens since Malaysian independence in 1957: Malay ‘custom’, and Islam.
Religion has therefore become a central marker of ethnic identity in Malaysia. And here is the nub of the problem. In the case of Islam, a religion that has historically spread with its carrier language, the Arabic language comes with the territory. It’s not so much that many Malays speak Arabic (in fact, I don’t know that many do), but rather that any connection to the Arabic culture and language should be, in Malaysia, only effected through Islam — which is in turn almost exclusively Malay. Two examples of this perceived special connection:
- In the forties and fifties vociferous battles were fought over whether the Malay language should be written in Jawi (Arabic script) as it had been since Islam came to the region, or in Rumi, the Latin script. Opponents of romanization accused pro-Rumi writers of being kaffirs (infidels), saying that discarding the Arabic script was tantamount to discarding Islam. The Arabic script was central to Malayness.
- Today, the word kitab, which means a normal ‘book’ in Arabic, is often used in Malay to refer to a specifically religious book, while secular books are simply buku, from the English.
Something similar is happening here with Allah. It may ‘just’ mean ‘God’ in Arabic, but in Malaysia, amidst these deep-rooted anxieties and questions of identity, it is so much more than a semantic quibble.
Allah, Tuhan, Same Diff
The frankly ridiculous claim, then, that only Malays/Muslims are allowed to use the word Allah, and that everyone else should back off and use Tuhan, certainly arises out of this ingrained defensiveness over what it is to be Malay. The claim that ‘Allah’ is somehow especially Islamic is disproved at least by the fact that the word itself predates Islam. Any argument that it has acquired ‘Islamness’ over time is furthermore disproved by the fact that it remains in use by Arab Christians today (and also by Indonesian Catholics). The dogged adherence to this claim by a small number of firebomb-wielding ultra-Malays is only explicable when we understand how sensitively most Malays are invested in themselves (politically or otherwise) as Muslims, in distinction to the other ethnic groups and religions in Malaysia. To be flippant: if Malays were really interested in being more ‘Malay’, they should in fact use the word Tuhan, which is much more ‘Malay’ for having deeper regional Austronesian roots, than Allah, which is, after all, an imported name for an imported God.