There is much that we can learn from the recent attacks on several churches in Malaysia spurred by the use of the word Allah–the Arabic word for God–by Malaysian Christians, dividing an otherwise diverse society.
The row started when government authorities moved to ban the import of religious books by the Sabah Evangelical Church of Borneo last year, arguing against the use of Allah by Christians. A Roman Catholic publication, The Herald, also received multiple warnings from the government that it would have its licence revoked if it continued referring to God as Allah.
Although the Malaysian government later backtracked and reversed the ban, allowing The Herald to use Allah in reference to God, the reversal of the ban resulted in a spate of attacks by extremist groups targeting churches and Catholic schools across the country.
The ban was a product of a 1986 law prohibiting non-Muslims from using Arabic words such as Allah, Baitullah (House of God), salat (prayer) and Kaaba, a site in Mecca considered most sacred for Muslims.
The strict implementation of these laws has pushed some religious communities apart, as witnessed by the recent violence. But Malaysia's minorities have faced challenges even prior to the church burning incidents.
The majority of Malays–which make up the largest ethnic group in Malaysia–are Muslim, which leaves religious minorities with a lesser chance of gaining access to higher education and public office. Article 153 of Malaysia's constitution safeguards the special position of the majority Malays and other indigenous groups of Malaysia. As a result, guidelines have been set on quotas for Malays in the fields of public service, scholarships and public education, often resulting in them in securing preferential positions.
In his "1Malaysia" blog–which is aimed at peacebuilding and engaging people in government processes–Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the attacks on churches, insisting that the violence is not representative of the broader Malaysian or Islamic ideology. It may be a genuine effort on part of the leadership to promote the right values but the question remains unanswered in Malaysia: Does any group have the sole right to use certain words?
In the Middle East, both Christian and Jewish Arabs have been using Allah and its variants for centuries as a reference to God. Similarly, Pakistani Christians use Khuda to refer to God, as do their Muslim neighbours. The point, then, is not a religious one, but a linguistic one.
But the debate continues in Malaysia over the translation of the word God in Bahasa Malaysia. Does Tuhan, the term some argue should be used instead of Allah , more accurately mean "Lord" rather than “God”? Is there no specific word for God in Bahasa Malaysia? And, if not, can the word "Allah be used in religious texts to refer to God since there is evidence that it has been used in Malaysia since the 1600s?
It is interesting to note that both the Bible and the Qur'an confirm their belief in a common God–the God of Abraham. If we share a common God, then why not a common name for that God?
Languages are not set in stone but are constantly evolving and reflective of social changes. The mutual use of the word Allah could have been an example of common ground amongst Muslim and Christian Malaysians. Instead, however, it has become a divisive force.
Regardless of what you may think of Shakespeare, there is much insight in his question: "What's in a name?" If we called God by any other name, would He be just as forgiving?
* Sundus Rasheed, from Karachi, Pakistan, manages and creates content for the English-language radio network CityFM89. She also comments on various social issues and pop culture phenomena. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).