[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Nasty things are happening in Malaysia. Nine Christian churches have been vandalized or burnt just over the last weekend. Thank God, nobody has been hurt, yet, but the terror unleashed is terrifying enough for the Christian minority of this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Also thank God that the attacks were the work of a fanatic minority among Malaysian Muslims, or Malays. Many others, including government spokesmen, denounced the barbarism. Some volunteers from Muslim nongovernmental organizations have even begun patrolling churches to protect them from possible future attacks. This is, of course, commendable.
Yet still, I think that Malays should deal not just with the radical symptoms of the problem. They should also deal with the problem itself.
A copyright of God?
The problem itself is a “copyright issue,” as Marina Mahathir, a Malay commentator, rightly put it. Christians in the country have been using the word “Allah” to refer to God in their services and publications, whereas the Muslim Malays believe that they have a monopoly on it. Hence the Muslim-dominated government recently put a ban on non-Muslims using the term. Yet last month the High Court overturned the ban. And hell broke lose.
As a Turkish Muslim, I strongly disagree with my Malaysian coreligionists who disagree with the Christians. The word “Allah” simply means “The God” in Arabic, and Arab Christians have been using it for centuries without any trouble. In Turkey, too, Bibles published by Turkish Christians used to have the term “Allah” until the recent “modernization” in their discourse. The change is their choice, and none of our business.
Most Muslims, in other words, don’t have a problem with hearing the word “Allah” from non-Muslim theists. And this is how it should be, because the Koran repeatedly says that Muslims worship the same God with Jews and Christians. “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you,” a verse orders Muslims to tell these fellow monotheists. “Our God and your God is one.”
Whence, then, comes the Malay possessiveness of Allah?
The Malaysian government argues that making Allah synonymous with God may “confuse Muslims and ultimately mislead them into converting to Christianity.” Wow, what a great sign of self-confidence. Why don’t they rather think, one wonders, that the same thing might ultimately “mislead” Christians into converting to Islam.
Besides the obvious immaturity, what is really disturbing to me here is how Allah, the “Lord of mankind” according to the Koran, is reduced to something like a tribal deity.
This was all too obvious in the slogan of the protesters at the mosques of Kuala Lumpur: “Allah,” they said, “is only for us.”
But who do you think you are, one should ask. Who gives you the authority to claim that the name of God of all men is your private property?
The answer, as you can guess, lies not in theology but politics. As a piece published in these pages yesterday (Gwynne Dyer, “In the Name of Allah”) explained well, the Muslim Malays, despite making up 60 percent of Malaysia, “feel perpetually insecure.” They worry that if their numbers in population decrease so will their dominant role in the country.
Hence comes Malaysia’s tyrannical bans on apostasy from Islam, limitations on mixed marriages, and the current obsession with the Christians’ language. The main intention behind these is the preservation of the dominance, and the “purity,” of a certain political community – say, a big tribe. (The medieval Islamic ban an apostasy, which has no basis in the Koran, was similarly a product of political motives.)
But pursuing the perceived interests of a political community that happens to be Muslim, is not the same thing with upholding the religious values that God has bestowed on Muslims.
The difference between the two is subtle but crucial. It is the difference between serving God, and making God serve us.
Jihad, victory and empire
The latter motivation, I suspect, is imperative in the makeup of the self-righteous, authoritarian and violent movements in the contemporary Muslim world. These movements always strive for some victory, some political dominance, which will elevate their very selves above all other men.
The words of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to blow up a passenger airliner near Detroit two weeks ago, are quite telling. “I imagine how the great jihad will take place,” he reportedly said, “how the Muslims will win … and rule the whole world, and establish the greatest empire once again!!!”
The yearning for glory here is not too different from what a revolutionary communist expects from the dictatorship of the proletariat, or what a chauvinist expects from an imperialist agenda that will make his nation the master of the world.
The Muslim thing to do, however, is to be more humble, modest and openhearted. The Koran tells Muslims that they are supposed to be “the best community that has been raised up for mankind.” Yet they really can’t serve that purpose if they begin by despising the rest of mankind, and claiming an ownership of God.
And Malaysia can’t really uphold the values of Islam through Islamo-tribalism.