'Allah' controversy: The need for cool heads in Malaysia

opinion February 14, 2014 00:00

By The Straits Times
Asia News N

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Violence fuelled by religious differences occurs intermittently in Malaysia, but is usually settled without much fuss. The belief that religious tolerance is the foundation of inter-communal understanding is dissolving, however, to judge from the hardenin

The dispute over its proper use is taking on undertones that, if left unchecked, could undermine the basis upon which a multi-religious, multicultural society organises itself.
The Allah dispute was foremost a doctrinal matter. As such, control could have been exercised or forbearance shown to guard against emotionalism. 
But attacks on a church in Penang over unacknowledged Allah banners and the vandalising of a Christian cemetery in Kuantan show how sentiment can turn irrational. It is a troubling lurch towards intolerance. 
There had in recent years been other church arsons and a cow-head stomping directed at Hindus over a temple’s location. Mosques have been targeted, too. Investigators have never established whether some incidents had been staged to paint a particular community or faith as the perpetrator. This was a reckless game to be indulging in, if it was so.
The people expect that any hint of extremism, from whichever faith or ethnic group, is extinguished without fear or favour. Malaysia’s standing as a moderate Muslim-majority country is a precious resource worth safeguarding in these religiously fraught times.
Prime Minister Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim have both acknowledged the need for calming efforts, in the wake of recent events. Anwar’s evaluation that tensions have reached a “dangerous crescendo” should be heeded, not disregarded as grandstanding. 
The leaders will certainly be well supported in their attempts at restraint, such as Najib’s plan to include opposition parties in parliamentary committees to discuss issues concerning national unity. Past efforts have extended to drawing in interfaith organisations to counsel respect among their followers for other faiths, and to condemn hurtful acts. 
This is needed more than ever. Religious heads have as much a duty as political leaders in restraining emotion. Rabble-rousers are a minority but their numbers could grow.
Racial harmony in Malaysia has been disturbed ironically because of the competitive tension of an emerging two- party system. 
Najib has been under siege from the conservative wing of his Umno party, the heart of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional, as Malay traditionalists regard political control and the supremacy of Islam as linked. It is up to the leadership to convince Malay Malaysians as a whole that Islam is not under threat.