Malaysia's highest court on Monday rejected a challenge to a ban that in effect prohibits non-Muslims from referring to God as Allah. That ban has been in place since 2007 and, despite a series of appeals by the Catholic Church, will now remain.
Malay-speaking Chrisians have long used the word "Allah" to signify God; the word entered the Malay language in the medieval era with the arrival of Arabic-speaking merchants. But in Malaysia's complex, fragmented social landscape, historic realities often rub up against modern politics. Malaysian authorities pursuing the case say that Christian usage of the term presents a dangerous blurring of lines.
An umbrella group of Christian denominations in the country claims that the ruling only applies to the Herald, a Catholic weekly newspaper originally involved in the legal proceedings, and that they will continue invoking Allah in their religious activities. But that is little comfort to some. "[The ruling] will confine the freedom of worship," said the Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Herald. "We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it."
Malaysia styles itself as a kind of Asian crossroads, its multi-ethnic, multi-faith population of Malays, Chinese and Indians an embodiment of the wider continent. But the controversy over the case reflects the longstanding tensions between the country's majority Muslim population and its religious minorities.
In 2009, after Christians briefly won an appeal challenging the ban (that was later overturned), a number of churches in various parts of the country were firebombed and vandalized.
Critics fear a creeping Islamization and growing intolerance in a society where religion and ethnicity are too often political badges. The ruling government has a reputation for playing ethnic politics, with a longstanding program of affirmative action for ethnic Malays (who are predominantly Muslim aimed at reversing the supposedly disproportionate dominance of other ethnic groups, in particular the Chinese, many of whom are Christian. There are suggestions the ruling party is using the Allah debate to win votes.
"The Malaysian government should be working to promote freedom of religion rather politically [than] exploiting religious wedge issues," said Human Rights Watch's Phil Robertson in an interview with the Associated Press.
Many non-Muslims elsewhere use the word Allah in reference to God. The issue is less controversial in Arabic-speaking countries like Egypt and Syria. But even in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, Christians say Allah alongside their Muslim compatriots.
Malaysian government lawyers have said Christians can use a different local word -- "tuhan" -- for their God. The puritanical zeal now on show obscures the deeper history of religious syncretism that has shaped the practice of Islam in many parts of the wider Muslim world.
Authorities in Malaysia may be desperate to preserve the Muslim primacy of Allah's name, but the life of a religion (and the language that sustains it) is far more complicated and fluid than they seem to appreciate. Muslims in South Asia, for example, have frequently appealed to their God with the word "khuda," a loan word from Persian signifying a higher power that likely has its origins in the more ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. If "khuda" can conjure Allah, then perhaps Allah can fit on the pages of a Malay Bible.