An uproar is occurring in a perhaps unexpected place. This past week Malaysia witnessed rising tensions as several churches have been vandalized. These tensions are the result of a court ruling in which a government ban on the use of Allah by Christians was overturned. Proponents of the ban argue that the term Allah should be reserved only for Muslims because they believe that Christians are using the term to get converts and that its use by other faith communities will end up confusing Muslims. The violence that has resulted, in my view, is problematic and sad.
While Muslims make up 60% of its population, Malaysia has a significant non-Muslim population and this kind of tension is troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, Allah is simply the Arabic word for God, not the property of a specific religion. In the Arabic-speaking Middle East, Muslims and Christians both employ this word when referring to God. For example, many expressions that have Allah in them like InshaAllah — “if God wills” — are used by both groups. As Anthony Shadid mentions in his article on the topic, “the God of Abraham, has a shared name, Allah.”
This violence is also troubling because it goes against the dictates of the faith that is is supposedly supporting. Houses of worship are not to be attacked, period. These kinds of attacks perpetuate the idea that Muslims are violent and such violence does not reflect how Muslims are instructed to live with others. Finally, I really don’t think that Muslims will become confused if others use this word!
It’s too bad that a term that carries so many positive connotations is leading to violence. In my opinion, the term should bring the groups together with a common vocabulary that both understand.
What do you think of the attacks? Do you think a common vocabulary can help diverse groups communicate? Can language lead to violence? How? Are there other similar situations? Please share your comments.