On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The view from the other side

We all want an early settlement to the controversy over the use of the word “Allah”. The country needs to move on with other issues, particularly economic concerns that need our attention.

There is this perception that seeking an appeal at the Court of Appeals to overturn the decision of the High Court would be a quick fix.

It won’t be because confidence and trust have been shaken. Angry Muslims feel the High Court decision was reached because the judge was a non-Muslim.

So, we can expect the same kind of reactions if the majority of the three sitting judges are Muslims, even if the judgment is legally sound.

The Muslims would be receptive to the decision if it favours them but the Christians, who want to use Allah in reference to God, would be dejected and make assumptions that the court hasn’t been fair.

Religious differences, especially theological ones, have gone on for centuries without any conclusion and, in most cases, we just respect each other’s beliefs. But one fact remains – we hold on to the principles of our faiths.

Whatever decision the higher courts make, it would be almost impossible for the Government to impose on Christians how they should refer to God in their prayers, especially within the premises of the churches.

But we cannot let this issue stop the various religious groups from working together. They must learn to agree to disagree and then move on to other areas of cooperation.

Common values

As men and women of God, they need to demonstrate to their flock that there are many paths to God. We can call Him different names but in the end, He is the Creator and it is His work that we need to uphold.

Upholding the principle of God and the unity of Man – instead of preaching conflict and separation – is surely shared by all faiths. Which right-minded person would quarrel over this?

Worshipping God is surely more important than worshipping personalities, whether they are politicians or bloggers.

We cannot claim to be faithful and pious with the strictest standards on our dressing, rituals and diet, yet close an eye to racial chauvinism, fanaticism and all the ills in this country, especially corruption.

How do we reconcile our belief in God if we openly allow such practices to go on?

Why would corruption be so rampant in this country if we are such a seemingly religious and pious nation?

There are areas of common values that all religious leaders should channel their attention to, namely corruption, poverty, injustice, poor planning and implementation, racial discrimination and blatant stealing of our country’s resources.

Surely, we expect them, as Muslim or Christian leaders, to make such pronouncements in their speeches or sermons regularly. Aren’t all these values important?

All of us are guilty in some aspects by focusing on the narrow-minded interpretation of our religious beliefs and ignoring the universal values.

Worse, most of us dare not point out the mistakes of our religious leaders when they are wrong, especially in their interpretation of the holy books, because we think ourselves inadequate theologically.

But we need to move on, as we try to seek a consensus over the Allah controversy, and that includes the setting up of a National Consultative Council on Religious Harmony.

There is no one body that encompasses all faiths at present, which means that contentious and critical issues involving inter-faith relations have not been resolved at the onset.

Such a body, if it exists, would be able to propose ideas and suggestions to the Cabinet and Parliament for consideration.

The Consultative Council should be headed by the Prime Minister, the minister in charge of religion and national unity, the leaders of the main political parties representing the ethnic groups, opposition leaders and various relevant religious leaders.

The Yayasan 1Malaysia, headed by Dr Chandra Muzaffar, has pushed for this proposal as it would be an effective channel of communication among the different religious groups.

We need to hear each other out, especially our fears and anxieties. Over the past weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak to the country’s top leaders, Muslim editors and colleagues on the frustrations of the Christians.

Many were genuinely surprised that Christians have difficulty setting up churches and that many churches are located above coffee-shops and in factory areas which are hardly conducive for services.

At one discussion, one Muslim newspaper editor openly supported my call that local authorities should stop throwing the spanner at Christians who want to set up churches.

In fact, many churches have been renamed “pusat or centres”, replacing the word “churches” because of the insistence of these local authorities but churches have never created a row.

The crosses on the front portion of many churches have long disappeared because of rules imposed by bureaucrats. This must be another surprise to many of our Muslim friends.

Keeping an open mind

They, in turn, have told me of their concerns why Allah was regarded as exclusive by them in their usage, and fears that Allah, a term so sacred to them, would be abused by others.

They understand the references made in Arab countries and even in Indonesia but they also want Christians to look at it in the Malay­sian context, especially in the peninsula.

They want their Christian brethren to appreciate that they do not want to emulate the Arabs and that the local texture and environment needs to be understood.

It would not be wrong to say that this is the majority view.

The fact remains that there are many issues we need to sit down to discuss, hear each other out and resolve, including terminology to ensure consistency.

For example, non-Muslims cannot use the word “Allah” but the state anthems of most states have the word “Allah”.

An all faith council would allow the leaders to interact and understand each other better, and in the process, perhaps forge a friendship which would enable issues to be resolved more effectively.

Irrespective of our religions, our ego, pride and prejudices are certainly regarded as sins, and perhaps we can look at issues better if we start with that understanding.