Splashes of paint near a statue of the Virgin Mary in Kota Tinggi; Source: Times Online

Recently Malaysia has been at the centre of another controversy. After the fatwa against Yoga (in which it was suggested that Muslims were better to abstain from it), the sentence against Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno (who was condemned to strokes of an “Islamic” cane), and the severed cow heads left on an area awaiting the construction of a Hindu temple, today churches, and other non-Muslim places of worship, have been torched over the issue of whether non-Malay Muslims, and in particular Christians, can use the word ‘Allah’. The Malay government, controlled by UMNO, clearly supports the opinion that “Allah” is, at least linguistically, a Malay Muslim theo-semiotic possession, despite the word being Arabic. Yet to understand the present situation we need to look at how Muslim Malaysians make sense of their social political identity within the country.

To do so we must refer to Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia in which a ‘Malay’ is described as a Malaysian citizen, born to a Malaysian citizen, who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks Bahasa Melayu, adheres to Malay customs, and is domiciled in Malaysia or Singapore. Furthermore, the constitution, in article 152, defines some privileges for Bumiputra, the Muslim ethnic majority of the country.

The privileges, based on internal economic and social political protectionism, have culminated in the so-called New Economy Policy, which, although officially terminated in the 1990s, still influences the relationship among the ethnic groups. These policies, and such protectionism, are not recent. The British colonial rule of Malaya set precise ethno-religious boundaries, with a certain level of protection for the Muslim Bumiputra, which the independent nation, and its constitution and legislation, have ideologically maintained.

Although there is clear evidence that the majority Muslim Malays have benefited from such privileges and closed the social and economic gaps with the other ethnic populations, particularly the Chinese, the continued reliance upon protectionist measures has helped to create a general feeling that these privileges are essential to maintain the equality of Muslim Malays vis-a-vis the non-Muslim Malaysians of other ethnic groups.

This way of thinking is arguably an internalization of British colonial opinions, in which Muslim Malays were seen as admirable for their artistic ability and beautiful “heritage”, but otherwise lazy by nature, unadapted to business and childish in their way of being. To the British, these negative descriptions were not made as criticisms but rather as statements of ‘natural’ fact. Hence, to preserve and protect this population, the British implemented particular protections, which at the end proved to be counterproductive in many respects.

We need this background information to understand the present issue over the name “Allah”. Of course, many commentators have decided to place this controversy within the context of ‘religious fanaticism’ and ‘Islamism’, or generally within the phenomenon of ‘religion’.

Although I do not deny that, in Malaysia, religion plays a role, it would be naive to believe that this is a theological discussion gone wrong. Rather, the controversy is rooted within the framework above. There are two main reasons that I want to highlight here.

The first has to do with the increasing challenges that UMNO faces politically. In the changing political landscape of Malaysia, UMNO needs to reinforce a solid political base of supporters. It could be said that the “Allah” controversy, and the decision of the government to support the legal action, was aimed at political ends as much as, if not more than, religious ones. Indeed, the debate may well engage a new kind of UMNO supporter: young, unhappy with differences, fearful of local and global competition and very attached to those protectionist policies which the opposition appears to oppose.

The Christian church, then, becomes a symbolic target at which to direct the discontent and frustration, as well as fear, about an uncertain future in which previous privileges may be removed and competition felt sharper than ever before. Although much more could be said about this, let us move to a second, more social anthropological aspect.

If we pay a second of attention to the ethnic composition of Christians, who officially account for 9.11% of the population, we may notice the diversity in ethnic profile. Differently from the case of Hinduism, which can be linked directly to Indian Malays, or Buddhism (the second religion in the country) to the Chinese, Christians are from all the main ethnic groups, with the number of Bumiputra Christians (8.9% of the Christian population) being nearly equal to those of Chinese origin (9.6% of the Christian population), and not very distant from the number of Indian Christians (7.7 % of the Christian population).

The central fact here is that the relationship between ethnicity and religion is highly complex, despite appearing on the surface to be relatively direct. The convenient colonial divisions, in which ‘Bumiputra’ meant Muslim, are not valid here. We have an intra-ethnic, although unpublicized, division.

Here lies the basis for the theo-semiotic challenge, which appears rather absurd to a majority of Muslims and also in the context of the linguistic history of Bahasa Melayu. The word ‘Allah’ is seen here to be only for those Bumiputra who are Muslims. The monopoly of the Arabic signifier of the ’signified’ God has become a logical conclusion to the protectionist and anachronistic Article 160 and 153 of the Malaysian constitution.

The relationship between the economic and social aspects of such protectionism (extending even to the domain of theology) is not as strange as it may appear at first glance. Malaysia is changing, as any other Southeast Asian country, and it is facing the same global challenges that any other population has to in this century, which is marked by so many ‘post-’ concepts (post-communism, post-modern and so forth).

Yet the colonial ghost is still haunting the country and trying to conserve an ethnic-religious identity based upon privileges that, in reality, end up threatening Malaysia’s security and unity. If Malaysia does not eventually deconstruct the left-overs from the colonial ideology and realize that the idea of ethnic and religious superiority (beyond contradicting Islamic teaching) is a burden of the past that stops the country’s development and damages its international reputation, it will remain mired in tragic, and sometimes tragic-comic, controversies.

In the long run, these controversies may endanger not only the racial and social harmony of Malaysia, but also – because of the epidemiological power of these religiously packaged controversies -neighboring countries such as Indonesia and perhaps, although with less likelihood, Singapore.

Gabriel Marranci, originally posted 1/18/10 on Islam, Muslims, and an Anthropologist