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A God By Any Other Name: Semantics in Malaysia

My daughter's 5th grade classroom may know more about the meaning of Allah than many in Malaysia do. Or, perhaps, the 5th graders may just be a lot less politically motivated in their development of understanding. They are certainly puzzled over the pervading debate in Malaysia about the meaning of "Allah," mostly because they know that "Allah" simply mean "God" in Arabic, just like "Dios" means God in Spanish, and "Dieu" means God in French.

Since the 1970s, Malaysians have generally been at peace with the religious diversity existing in their country, which is comprised of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus. But three years ago, the home minister of Malaysia barred a Catholic newspaper from using the word "Allah" to describe the Christian God. Just recently, the Malaysian High Court determined that this ban is unconstitutional and ruled in favor of the Catholic newspaper, allowing "Allah" to be used by non-Muslims.

The ban on the use of "Allah" did not come from Malaysian Muslim religious leaders, but rather from the country's government. In fact, the "Islamist" political party in Malaysia has backed the Catholic view on this issue.

So what's the source of the problem? The usual one: fear and resulting sociopolitical pressure. Fifty-three percent of Malaysia is ethnically Malay, virtually all of whom are Muslim. Other ethnicities are Chinese, Indian, and indigenous people; these are variously Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu. The Malay political party has generally held power in Malaysia, but in recent years, opposition parties have become stronger. Hence, the playing out of the old story: fear of losing political power. This has caused friction, one aspect of which is the argument about the use of "Allah."

Christian Malaysians have the right to use "Allah" to describe their Christian God, because Allah just means "God." In fact, Arab Christians have called their God "Allah" for centuries. Linguistically, "Allah" doesn't mean "Muslim God" or "Islamic God." It just means God. Fifth-graders understand this definition, but then most of them are not plagued by politics.

As an American Muslim woman, this is an issue I bump up against all the time. Our American media continually uses "Allah" when they should use "God." After all, they're speaking English, not Arabic. But Muslims are at fault, too: in clinging to their Muslim religious identity (which is a natural reaction when their faith is vilified), they use "Allah" when speaking in English. That's just as strange as English-speakers inserting "Dieu" for every instance of "God" in their conversations. This usage perpetuates the notion that Muslims worship something other than what Jews and Christians worship; that Islam is alien and other; and that Muslims themselves are alien and other.

I received an email once from someone who had read my book and objected to me saying that the Muslim God and the Christian God were both "God" and not different gods. The writer said that his God was Jesus Christ and mine wasn't, and therefore they were different. Well... if you use that definition, the Jewish God and the Christian God are different, too, but they're not treated that way in the public discourse, which treats them both as "God." Similarly, Protestants and Catholics don't regard the nature of God in exactly the same way, and yet both use the word God and accept that they generally mean the same concept by it.

Why look for differences when we have so much more in common?

Atheists have often challenged me, "Well, all this argument about religion shows that it's a bad thing." My response is that if humans didn't have religion, they'd find something else to fight about.

I remember an old, rather Shakespearean, Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk (my hero) came across two men fighting each other with a deep hatred of the other's physical appearance.

"But," protested Captain Kirk, bewildered, "You look exactly alike. Your faces are each half black and half white."

"Are you blind?" contemptuously demanded the alien. "Look at me! My face is black on the right side. His face is black on the left side!"

Clearly, there's always something to fight about if one is so inclined. I hope the Malaysians realize that and understand that it's not religion driving the dispute over the use of "Allah," but the age-old fear of losing power and ceding it to another ethnic or religious group. Given Malaysia's recent history, I'm hopeful that they will.

Sumbul Ali-Karamali is an attorney with a degree in Islamic law and the author of "The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing."