Back in kindergarten, two of my classmates fought over who could call their mother “Mom.” To them, only one had rights to that word. The teacher separated them, told them that everyone called their own mother “Mom” and instructed them to shake hands and behave. The children learned common sense, stopped fighting and went on to recess. This type of behavior in children is ordinary. Among adults, however, it’s a surprise.
In Malaysia, Catholics used the word “Allah” to refer to God in a Malay-language newspaper. It’s not without precedent: In Malay-speaking parts of Malaysia, multiple faiths use “Allah” for God. By definition, Allah is Arabic for “the God,” and the Arabic language predates the birth of Islam by 1,000 years or more.
Malaysian Muslims protested and went to court, claiming that only Muslims can use the term. Last October, a lower court agreed. This launched a series of overturns and appeals, which ultimately led the issue to Malaysia’s highest court. During the court battles, protests mounted, which led to the burning of churches and mosques. Ironic that places where Allah’s name is glorified were destroyed.
Malaysia’s high court must rule in favor of freedom of conscience, for several reasons.
First, Malaysia suffers from a freedom of conscience crisis. Intolerant and dogmatic ideology has crept into the country, which is a precursor to extremist thought. Countries that have put restrictions on freedom of conscience, such as Pakistan, have nothing but persecution to show for it. Extremist groups are empowered to exert at least enough influence over these countries to cause rights and freedoms to topple like dominoes.
Second, those who support oppression of conscience claim it helps maintain order. However, the facts prove otherwise. More disorder resulted in Malaysia after the court filings than before. In neighboring Indonesia, which has imposed similar blasphemy law restrictions, mobs are empowered to go on witch hunts, persecuting and killing in broad daylight with little to no government restriction.
Malaysian Catholics must maintain every right to use the word “Allah” when talking about God, praying to God, writing about God and in any other way they like. The court should rule in favor of neither group, but in favor of all faiths by declaring that no entity can copyright God and no one can impose restrictions on another’s faith. This would be a monumental step for freedom of conscience in a region rife with religious persecution.
Regardless of what the court decides, the bigger issue remains. Malaysia’s conservative Muslims are no strangers to persecuting others for their faith. In 2009, the Selangor Islamic Religious Council forbade Ahmadi Muslims from offering Friday prayers at the Ahmadiyya central mosque. The punishment for violation was one-year imprisonment and/or a fine.
Ahmadi Muslims believe that the founder of their movement, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, is the awaited messiah that Prophet Muhammad foretold would come to re-establish truth and justice and revive Islam. Due to this dogmatic but peaceful difference in belief, Ahmadi Muslims suffer state-sanctioned persecution in Malaysia.
If Malaysia’s high court rules in favor of extremists wanting to restrict use of the word “Allah” only to themselves, the court only further empowers extremists to take the law into their own hands.
Finally, just consider the irony of it all. Conservative Muslims worry that the use of Allah in the Bible will confuse them when differentiating between the Bible and the Quran and could lead to national disorder. If that is their fear, then they have not read either book. Malaysian Catholics and Muslims have used Allah together for generations without issue.
If the high court rules in the Islamic council’s favor, then I hope Malaysian Jews teach the conservative Muslims a lesson by claiming a right over monotheism. That would be the ultimate irony for the extremists who actually believe they can patent a religious word: Why not patent a religious concept?
Malaysia’s leadership should take a lesson in common sense from my kindergarten teacher: Everyone has a right to call his or her own god Allah.
(Salaam Bhatti is a national spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA, and is a practicing attorney in New York.)
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