Feb 15th 2010 10:45 pm Discussing “the Allah issue”

Topic: ‘The Allah issue’

Date:  Saturday, the 30th of January 2010

Time: 3-5pm, a group will be going to dinner afterwards

Location: Imperial College London

Texts to look at if possible before the meeting


  1. Hasbeemasputra Abu Bakar interview on the Fairly Current Show
  2. Sivin Kit interview on the Fairly Current Show
  3. Commentary from an observer, brief guide to Muslim reactions
  4. Another commentary
  5. A summary of the case in English and BM.

Optional readings for ‘technical’ matters:

  1. Mengapa Kata ‘Allah’ dan ‘TUHAN’ dipakai dalam Alkitab Kita?
    Document from the Indonesian Bible Society
  2. Justice Lau Bee Lan’s judgment
  3. Linguistic opinion from a student of Arabic: ‘So Allah is the proper noun for THE GOD, at least in Arabic and in the Middle East. Whether you want to argue that this is the God of Islam or the God of the Universe is up to you [Nik Aziz: is there any other God?], but etymologically, in Arabic, ilah = (a) god; allah = al-ilah = the god. Note the prefix al- to signify “the.” The Hebrew Elohim for God shares the same triconsonantal roots: vowel-L-H. Non-Muslim speculations that “the word ‘Allah’ in English (as seen in any English dictionary) is a mispronunciation of both the Arabic and the Hebrew word for God” are at best unhelpful, distracting, and downright wrong…Whether Allah is a proper or generic noun in Malay, both linguistically and East-Malaysian application-wise, is a different matter.’

Summary of the discussion

On Saturday the 30th of January, about thirty Malaysians from the London area and beyond gathered at Imperial College London for a discussion around ‘the Allah issue’ and subsequent attacks against places of worship. A reading list had been distributed beforehand to inform participants about the basic facts of the case, linguistic and theological subtleties as well as to place all of the above in the broader context of Malaysian society.

The conversation began, after a round of introductions, with the afore-mentioned topics and rapidly moved on to larger issues. Below is a roughly chronological summary of the discussion. Some liberty has been taken in grouping related comments together.

We remember where we were when we heard the news. We thought ‘This is not my country; this is not Malaysia’. It is not good to read about this from overseas as the media tends to overplay things.

On the ground, most people don’t seem to care. There were also some ‘feel-good’ initiatives on the ground — e.g. people giving out flowers on the street — not reported in the media. We are confident that this is an issue that Malaysians, left to themselves, can sort out reasonably and peacefully.

If Malaysians are not up in arms, who is behind this? Whose interests are being served? Several possibilities were proposed. This is all about power. It was noted that we are still under four declared states of emergency which have not been lifted.

We must be careful not to say ‘Ordinary Malaysians are not involved; this is just manipulation’. Manipulation can lead to real, on-the-ground effects. Are we sure we have not been influenced in some way? What is the sociological reality?

This is a question of voice, who speaks for whom, who speaks for which community? It is important to remember that there is politics even in religious circles.

A slight detour: Is the language of FDI the only one that politicians understand? It is important not to believe in the FDI bogeyman. Investors do look for ’stability’, but also at other factors. The net FDI flow is difficult to ascertain due to the lack of data. However, in the period of economic uncertainty, leading economists suggested that unemployment rate is the most reliable indicator of a country’s economic situation instead of GDP or FDI figures. Also, to what extent should we play the capitalist game? Certain countries, notably in Europe have chosen lower growth in order to preserve certain social and cultural values.

US blacklists are only partially effective, example of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act — legislation in place and implemented, but slowly and to date perhaps ineffectively. Is development incompatible with democracy? Book: World on Fire, Amy Chua. In any case, we think that Malaysia has passed the stage where this question is relevant.

Coming back to the main topic: is the deafening silence from the public a sign of maturity? Or of complete apathy? A little of both?

There was an argument that the public has been less reluctant to express their sentiments as BERSIH and Anti-ISA rallies have demonstrated. The (dismal) size of recent “pro-ban” demonstrations and the active effort of promote mutual understanding perhaps could be taken as a sign that the relative calm on the street is a sign of maturity, not apathy amongst the public.

Will the government win the appeal? Almost certainly. The question is what sort of fallout there will be at the local, national and international levels. For example, leading Muslim scholar Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi in his recent Malaysian visit had expressed dismay at this ‘issue’ – which to him is a non-issue. We must move away from the mentality of ‘the government knows best’. They have been elected to govern, not to rule.

The main question here is how we can “mematangkan rakyat Malaysia” – to increase the level of awareness and promote mature thinking. Theological arguments cannot be used to decide a case like this i.e. to pronounce on other religions. Religious leaders have not been given platforms in this debate; most forums are organised by political interests. Ordinary Malaysians should invite religious leaders to more neutral/informational gatherings such as this.

With regards to religious leaders, there should be more support for independent religious forums to reach consensus free of unwanted interventions. The “Allah” issue seems to have precipitated the public’s mistrust for state religious institutions to the point that recent JAKIM/IKIM’s efforts seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

It is important to know that from an East Malaysian perspective this is basically a peninsular issue. People live in peace in EM. There is a church in Sarawak, ‘Gereja Mariam Bonda Allah’. Nobody has a problem with this except Peninsula folk. News from Sarawak can be obtained from websites like http://www.sarawakupdate.com/ directly.

To wrap up, three keywords: power, voice, kematangan. We have talked about the power of politicians, the government, multi-nationals, the international community. Where is the power of the Malaysian people? Many people claim to speak for this or that group, the media also has a voice. Where is the voice of the Malaysian people? Kalau tak peduli pun, kita kena tulis surat kepada akhbar to say ‘Isu ini, memang kita tak peduli, signed rakyat Malaysia.’ As ordinary Malaysians, let’s step up to the plate, exercise our power, make our voice heard and help each other towards maturity.

Several participants prayed before and after the main meeting. After the meeting, most of the participants adjourned to a restaurant for dinner, more informal chitchat as well as to discuss possibilities for future events. Watch this space!

Disclaimer: the Malaysia Forum abides by the Chatham House Rule for its communications; this summary has been written in this spirit. Please note that all views expressed above are of the participants and not of MF as a whole.