by: Prof. James Chin, Director of Governance Studies Programme at Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia
Last week, the highest court in Malaysia ruled that the Catholic Church cannot use the word “Allah” in its publication The Herald. The government argued that the word “Allah” is unique to Islam, and restricted its use to Muslims. This goes against the established fact that non-Muslims have used the word “Allah” since time immemorial in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world.
Few were surprised by the ruling. Christians and other minorities in Malaysia knew that the issue was not really about the usage of the word “Allah,” but rather a show of political force about who really rules the country.
Malaysia is a multiracial, multireligious country where about 60 percent of the population is Muslim. This normally does not represent a political problem, but in Malaysia, a Muslim identity is constitutionally defined as someone who is ethnic Malay. Hence, in Malaysia, Malays are Muslim and Muslims are Malay.
This is complicated by a huge Islamic bureaucracy whose job is to “protect” and “defend” Islam by making it legally impossible to leave Islam. The Islamic bureaucracy runs a scare campaign claiming that Christians are the enemy, and that they want to use the word “Allah” to convert Malays to Christianity. Some even claim the Jews are behind the campaign.
Running parallel to the religious tensions is ethnic competition between the Malays and non-Malays (mostly Chinese and Indians). Blaming the racial riots in 1969 on economic imbalance between the Malays and non-Malays, the government instituted a massive affirmative action plan favoring the former.
Unlike affirmative action plans in other countries, this plan – the New Economic Policy (NEP) – had a clear political objective of cementing Malay control over the political system. Discriminatory policies in all social, public, and economic spheres openly favored the Malay/Muslim community and positioned non-Malays as second-class citizens.
The rationale given was that non-Malays had “agreed” to the “special rights” of Malays in return for citizenship when the country became independent in 1957.
For more than three decades, many non-Malays saw the policy as the political price to pay for communal peace, and the majority of the economically dominant Chinese community accepted it as the price of doing business in Malaysia.
Unfortunately, Malay political leaders in the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) saw the NEP as a free ticket to instant wealth. Using their political power, they secured massive rent in the name of affirmative action through government contracts and licensing systems.
By the new millennium, it had become increasingly difficult for UMNO to justify the NEP when its widespread corruption and abuse were clear as daylight, especially to the lower-income segment of the Malay population. Younger Malays were better educated and saw political Islam as an alternative to the established order under UMNO.
In the 2008 general elections, UMNO lost the majority of the non-Malay vote. More importantly, it lost the urban Malay vote as well. This trend became more pronounced in the 2013 elections.
To arrest the decline in Malay support, UMNO has decided that the best approach to win back the Malays, and to punish the non-Malays for not supporting it, is to ramp up the political pressure using Islam. The word “Allah” thus became a convenient political weapon.
By saying that the word “Allah” is exclusive to Muslims, and that Islam is under threat from Christians (sheer nonsense since Christians make up less than 10 percent of Malaysia’s population), the government kills two birds with one stone. It will bring the Malay/Muslim vote back to UMNO and send a powerful reminder to non-Malays that they are dominated by Malays and should not harbor any ideas about changing their second-class political status.
In the immediate future, the radical segment of Malaysia’s Muslim population will feel empowered by the government’s open support. They will seek to impose more Islamic rules and regulations on both the Muslim and non-Muslim populations in an effort to establish a theocratic state.
There are signs that this is happening already: Recent reports suggest that more than a dozen fighters in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are from Malaysia, including a confirmed suicide bomber.
The long-term consequences will be calamitous for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. By using Islam as a political weapon to stay in power, the government is unwittingly destroying the rich traditional Malay culture and replacing it with Islam and Arabization. The Malay culture is one of the richest in the region, with its unique language, dance, and songs. All will be banned in the name of “pure” Islam.
By James Chin
James Chin is Professor of Political Science and Head of School at Monash University’s School of Arts and Social Sciences. He has published widely on Malaysian politics.