10/16/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2013

Defining God: Revealing the Poverty of Religious Literacy

While the celebration of Eid al-Adha this week should be a joyous time for Muslims globally, headlines remind us that the state of affairs in the proposed Muslim world are far from celebratory. Recent conflicts, attacks, and inter-communal violence in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, and events such as the Nairobi mall shooting and the sinking of a refugee ship off the Italian coast at Lampedusa, reveal the constant face of suffering in the world. While all of these events and crises demand our mourning and reflection on the implications of violence and bloodshed, a recent development in Malaysia also demands our reflection on the implications of ignorance and fear in our world.

The Malaysian Court of Appeals this past Monday banned the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims when referencing God. This ruling overturned a 2009 decision by a lower court to allow The Herald, a Catholic newspaper in Malaysia, to use "Allah" in its Malay-language newspaper. Chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali stated that, "The usage of the word is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity...The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community." Hundreds of Malaysians in support of the ban stood outside of the court in the administrative center of Putrajaya to welcome the ruling.

With the reinstated ban, The Herald will no longer be able to use the word "Allah" to refer to the Christian experience of God, despite the centrality of the word in Malaysian Christian liturgy and worship for centuries. The Arabic word "Allah" is commonly used by Christians in Malaysia and Indonesia as well as Arabic-speaking countries, such as Jordan and Egypt, to refer to God. This decision has sparked religious tension and raised questions over minority rights in Malaysia.

While Islam is the largest religious community in Malaysia, there are active minority religious communities, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists. Despite this ban being in direct relation to the publication of The Herald, wider societal implications are feared. The 2009 ruling to allow non-Muslims to use the word "Allah" spurred acts of attack and vandalism at houses of worship in Malaysia and solidified a culture of inter-communal tension. Such tension and violence may once again spread.

While the irrationality and poverty of this decision is self-revealing and apparent, the greatest issues, as I see them, are its lack of context, its rashness, and its ignorance of shared religious histories, linguistic realities, and the need for common respect. Despite the arguments that can be made, this is a direct infringement on the religious freedom of minority communities in Malaysia - primarily for the Christian community which engages the word "Allah" on a daily basis. The problems are, unfortunately, even deeper and more global than a small and isolated production of ignorant policy.

It is important to critique this development in light of its context and development in Malaysia. I fear that this ruling can easily be taken out of context and inappropriately employed to cast the entirety of the Muslim world in negative and familiar lines of discourse. In reality, it is rooted in the socio-political realities and situations of the country, which reflect profoundly human concerns. Ethnic tension in Malaysia between Malays, ethnic Chinese, and ethnic Indians are deep-seated. Most of the country's top and current leaders are Malay Muslim, and thus non-Muslim proselytization efforts are heavily restricted. The fear of communal confusion, as expressed by chief judge Ali above, is rooted not only in religious tension, but in the ethnic, social, and political landscape unique to Malaysia. This is a ruling rooted in fear and the desire for power, rather than a metaphysical or theological exegesis. While I in no way support the decision of the court, it is important to remember the context that gave rise to this ruling - something the court failed to provide.

What this ruling reveals is the lack of religious literacy both locally and globally. This has been noted by several religious scholars and scholars of religion, including the American scholar Stephen Prothero. Religious pluralism -- not as a political project but as a dynamic human and social aspect of the world -- has yet to be seriously engaged and maintained in communities globally. The particular aspect of this intellectual and social poverty revealed in the Malaysian context is the ignorance of shared religious histories, experiences, and realities. We often forget that Christianity was established in a Jewish context (let alone that Jesus himself was a Jew), that Muslims developed their self-understanding in relation to the Jewish and Christian revelations, or that Buddhism responded to Hindu thought and culture. Religious literacy, a necessary prerequisite to interreligious dialogue, responsible pluralism, or contextual religious policy, is lacking around the world, and the court ruling in Malaysia is but one blaring example of this reality.

Despite the gravity of the crises that loom today, we must not forget that ignorance and fear are common tools of rallying, war, and manipulation. Voices of fear, isolation, and arrogance must be met with actions and responses of humility, openness, and engagement. Where our minds have frozen us into fear, our hearts can open us to love. It is my hope that the Malaysian people will not allow this ruling to stifle the minority communities of the country, but will challenge this movement in solidarity and commitment to religious freedom. It is also my sincere hope that the importance of religious literacy in building pluralistic societies is realized and considered - in Malaysia and beyond. I pray this Eid al-Adha that the social, ethnic, and religious tensions that root in fearful hearts do not materialize further into crippling crises, for the world has its fair share of burdens at present.