Compromise for Allah

Daniel Collin Lazaroo

Modified 7 Jan 2010, 10:26 am

I've followed, with great interest, the build-up and reaction to the court's ruling on the 'Allah' issue. I have observed the justifications that people claim or make regarding their own stance and opinion on the issue. Generally, I have observed that these stances/opinions fall into a couple of categories.

The first, the 'religious argument', stems from theological and historical lines: 'Allah use predates Islam' vs 'Allah refers to the Islamic God'. The second is the 'freedom and rights argument', which stems from a human rights and constitutional perspective that, 'The practice of a religion should not be discriminated against' vs 'Only one religion has the right to use the word Allah'.

I think it's good to clear the air and for all of us to be aware that these are two largely different issues. One big reason why there is so much dissent to court’s ruling is because the ruling is only of the constitutional domain. The ruling did not and does not shed any light on the 'religious argument'. And this is not the court's failing - it is not the court's role to rule and judge on theological or religious debates.

The Islamic groups who are against the decision cite the theological and historical arguments in opposition to the ruling. I observe that the truth or points of their arguments are, however, not really in the same domain as what the court has ruled. This is not to say that their arguments are false or wrong - but that they are arguing for an issue that cannot be decided by the courts.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad actually pointed this out yesterday. Perhaps he did not go into the details as to why the 'Allah situation' cannot be decided by the courts. But on this matter, he sees and has spoken the truth. The dissent to the judgment is not from a constitutional or human rights domain, but from a theological one - and the court has no real authority over the latter.

But it's not just the Islamic groups who have been blind to this - I observe that the Catholic Church has also been blind here, though perhaps in a slightly different way. While the use of the word 'Allah' for our religious practice is constitutionally sound, does our faith become any deeper or shallower from using or not using the word 'Allah'?

The practice may be constitutionally sound, and may be even theologically sound, but is it theologically necessary? Any practicing Catholic who knows a thing or two about God and Christianity knows that the answer to that is 'No'.

"But, we have a right to use the word 'Allah'! Why should only one group have a monopoly of the word?" is what the typical argument for us Catholics using the term 'Allah' is. And that argument has a strong constitutional point. But it scores zero in the theological domain - there is no place in our Christian faith or Roman Catholic tradition that mandates, suggests, implies or favors the use of the term 'Allah'.

Sure, historically we have used the term. And constitutionally we are allowed to. But theologically we do not have to. The Islamic parties claim that 'Allah is a term only for the Muslim God'. Constitutionally, this is clearly questionable, as indicated by the court’s ruling. But this is theologically sound within their Islamic faith. And us Catholics not using the term are also theologically sound within our own faith.

The court’s ruling is a victory only in the sense that the constitution and our rights for freedom of religion in Malaysia are protected. But if it leads to disharmony between us on theological grounds, then all us Malaysians lose. Not just because Mahathir is right (and he is). But because there can never be compromise between two vastly different platforms of debate. Constitutionally, the Catholic church might 'win'. But the real reason why people are against the ruling is on theological grounds. In all real practical terms, everyone loses.

It's easy and tempting for our egos to take over when it comes to evaluating how we should react to such a ruling. We want to feel right. We want to feel justified. We do not want others to 'win' or have dominion over us in any way. And I observe that the main reason why there is so much dissent to, and how all this happened in the first place, is also because of our massive egos taking charge. And I'm not just pointing my finger at the Islamic groups who are so adamantly against the ruling - I'm pointing at the Catholic Church too.

Both sides have blindly pursued the issue for the agenda of feeling 'justified'. That is something both sides have in common. Both have been blind to what really matters at the end of the day. And what does matter at the end of the day? Look within the theology of both faiths for the answer. Clearly, it's not about the word 'Allah'. It's about the God that the word points to. And also, look at what that God teaches - peace, love, harmony. Does fighting for or against the use of the word 'Allah' make us more peaceful and loving? The answer to this is obvious.

"But we should have the right to use the word 'Allah'! Why should only one group have a monopoly of the word?" rings the constitutional argument again. "But Allah only refers to the Islamic God! Another religion has no right to use this term!" counters the theological argument. There can be no compromise between these two attempts at feeling justified because they are talking about two different things.

So, you might wonder - who's side am I on? Frankly, I think that one religion trying to control another's practice of a different religion is a recipe for disaster and screams of paranoia. It is an indication of fear - fear that something another religion does is going to take away from my own faith. And when the masses act out of such a fear, history and a little common sense will tell us that bad things tend to happen. Personally, I think that the Islamic groups who are so against the court’s ruling need to examine their faith and their selves, and get to the root of their paranoia and fear.

There is no real reason why they should live in fear of us Catholics, or anyone else for that matter, taking something away from their own practice of faith. Especially since we are not intending to use the term ‘Allah’ to convert them (or 'trick' them, as the paranoid person would claim), but only for our own personal practice of our own faith.

But I also think that The Herald and other Christian publications can do whatever is it that they are tasked to do without using the term 'Allah'.

"But we should have the right... No one faith has a monopoly of a word..." rings again. That's your ego talking - that part of you that doesn't want to feel like you, or your faith has lost something, and that wants you to feel justified in some way. But if the Catholic Church feeling or being justified on this point means civil unrest and disharmony, then the easier 'solution', given the lack of necessity for us to use the term, becomes apparent to all.

"But we should fight for our faith! We can't let people come in and dictate the way we practice our faith! We can't let others push us around when it comes to theological matters!" My ego agrees with you. Gandhi once said ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’. If we can't see past the struggle or keep our eyes on the prize, then I fear we will miss out on what matters at the end of the day. Love. Peace. Harmony. Community. Companionship. Respect. Trust. If us not using the term 'Allah' makes it easier for these things to become a reality, then I say go for it. Do we really imagine that Jesus would do otherwise? To not choose sacrifice for the greater good?

Clearly, the courts cannot and will not be able to bring about a peaceful resolution to this. A constitutional resolution, yes. But one that brings about peace? No. Ideally, I think that the elimination of paranoia and fear of 'Muslims getting confused' is the best way to bring about a peaceful solution. But we do not live in an ideal world. Practically, the only party that actually has a say to how all this ends is the Catholic Church. The ball really is in their court.

Will the Church swallow it's pride and it's ego of wanting to feel right or justified and act out of respect for the Muslim's request for us not to use the term 'Allah'? Did the Church not decide on no longer using term 'Yahweh' for God out of respect for our Jewish brothers? Can we not do the same for the term 'Allah' for our Muslim brothers? If the answer to that is 'no', then we're probably in for a rough ride.