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Wednesday January 13, 2010

Seeking harmony in Malaysia

When religion becomes subservient to political agendas, it often becomes a tool for politicians who misconstrue the religion’s basic principles. The goal must be living together harmoniously. The goal is freedom of conscience.

IF a Muslim proselytised outside St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he might find a cold welcome. He would be legally within his rights. But he would be socially provocative.

The same can be said for the Malay language–edition of the Catholic monthly, The Herald, which decided to use the word “Allah” in reference to the Christian God.

Yes, it is true that Allah is the Arabic word for God and that Arab Christians use the word Allah when they refer to God. And yes, it is true that under freedom of speech and freedom of religion, one should be able to refer to the supreme deity any way one wants.

But among Malays, who are practically all Muslims, Allah refers to the Islamic Supreme Being. And the attempt by The Herald to appropriate the word Allah to refer to the Christian God appeared to some Malays to be seeking to convert them away from their faith.

Now pictures of protesting Malays are circulating around the world, and people are wondering why.

During the past 20 years since the implosion of the Soviet Union, some Western churches have been evangelising in central, southern and eastern Asia. This angered the established religions there – whether they were Muslim, Eastern Orthodox or Hindu – and in India that anger turned to violence.

Most recently that anger has surfaced in Malaysia, where 60% of the people are Malays. The High Court’s ruling that Allah is not exclusive to Muslims led to the fire bombing of some churches and protests among Malays, who fear Catholics are trying to manipulate the word to win Malay converts.

This should not be.

Islam and Christianity are at their roots religions of peace and tolerance. A certain amount of competition will always exist among religions. Good competition is to compete in good works. Bad competition is trying to undermine the other faith.

To live harmoniously in that competition requires everyone to understand the consequences of their actions.

My message to the Christian community in Malaysia is that using the word Allah to mean the Christian God may be theologically and legally correct, but in the context of Malaysia, it is socially provocative. If you want to have influence with people in Malaysia, you must find a way to convey your message without provoking this kind of response.

If you want to reach the Malays, then use the Malay word for God, which is Tuhan.

At the same time, I urge the Malays to act in accordance with the ethical values of Islam. You must recognise that we do not own Islam but Islam owns us. We do not own Allah. Allah owns us.

We live in a globalised era where events in Malaysia have consequences around the world. Some people in Christian-majority countries will see Muslims mistreating Christian minorities and use that to justify mistreating Muslim minorities in their countries.

In the Hadith, the Prophet taught us: “Cursed is the one who curses his own parents.”

A companion to the Prophet said: “Messenger of God, how can a man curse his own parents?”

The Prophet replied: “He curses the parents of another man, and out of anger, that man curses his own parents.”

So if Muslims curse the Christians, then the Christians will curse the Muslims. And people will curse Allah, and Allah will hold us responsible for that.

The Quran is even more explicit on this point when it says: “Do not curse the gods of those who do not believe in Allah, lest they unknowingly curse Allah out of their hostile feelings.”

That means that even though we may have the right belief, if we treat non-Muslims wrongly, they will have ill will toward Allah and Islam, and Allah will hold us responsible for that.

Fire bombing churches? From the beginning of Islam, the Prophet said our faith requires us as Muslims to protect houses of worship of all other faith traditions. Islam was able to spread throughout the world, not only because of its own ideas, but also because it protected people’s rights to practise religion freely.

My plea to the Malaysian politicians is please, please do not politicise religion.

When religion becomes subservient to political agendas, it often becomes a tool for politicians who misconstrue the religion’s basic principles for their own ends.

No good can come from provoking this issue to gain political advantage. Religion is meant to inform leaders on ethics and principles.

Our goal must be living together harmoniously. Our goal is freedom of conscience.

Our model should be the Prophet Muhammad when he worshipped in Mecca before Islam had taken hold. He did not pray the noon and afternoon prayers in a loud voice lest that would incite anger of the unbelievers.

And like him, we should all practise our religions in a way that does not provoke others.

> Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations. (www.cordobainitiative.org) He is the author of “What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right With America.”

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