While attracting relatively little attention worldwide, Malaysia has been wrestling with a matter of global significance now in its third year. Political tensions arose related to the question of permitting use of the term Allah in Bible translations. The issue is serious, and not easily solved.
By the grace of God, Malaysia thus far staved off a potentially explosive outcome with only minor incidents of violence. Leaders have put forward a reconciliation proposal to meet these challenges peacefully. This demonstrates positive good will on all sides of the issue, and models the possibility of harmonious relations among Muslims and Christian in contentious situations. Malaysian leaders, including (or perhaps especially) Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak should be greatly praised for their devotion and important success for the moment.
Malaysia is a multiracial country
comprising approximately 60.4% Muslims adherents. Malaysia is a de-facto secular regime, with Islam as the state religion. Christians make up 9.1% of the Malaysian population
. The other important thing to know is the geographical interweaving
of Malaysia and Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, with its own very pointed challenges in Muslim-Christian relations, especially related to the East Nusa Tenggara province and the horrible affairs on Timor Island
. Malaysia's interreligious tensions and whether or not they are resolved peacefully have enormous implications for the region, and beyond. The Bible translation issue in Malaysia represents a vital test case for Christian-Muslim relations worldwide.
On March 9, 2009, 5100 Bibles were detained by the Malaysian government in Port Klang, near Kuala Lumpur. The issue had to do with language and translation, most pointedly regarding the use of the term Allah in these Bibles. Another 30,000 Bibles were detained
this year on January 12 on the island of Borneo. In 2007 a government order was issued that bans non-Muslims from translating the word God as “Allah” in their literature. The federal government does not allow non-Muslims in Malaysia from translating God as “Allah” in their literature, saying it would confuse Muslims in this multi-ethnic, Muslim-majority country. Christian groups say the ban is unconstitutional
, arguing that the word “Allah” predates Islam.
Resolving such issues technically is beyond political competency, yet political decisions are required nevertheless. Political institutions are poorly equipped to resolve matters so deeply religious. A major problem stems from the fact that whether Malaysia is an Islamic state or secular state
remains unresolved. There were a number of missteps at finding solutions, including early plans to stamp the Bibles “for Christians only” along with a serial number so the Bibles could be tracked. If a Muslim was found with such a Bible, it could be tracked back to its previous owner — and those Christians would be prosecuted for trying to convert Muslims to Christianity
As of today, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak put forward with seeming sincerity (though of course some accuse him of political motives) what strikes this reader as an important and elevated attempt to move his country forward, and to pioneer the pursuit of interreligious harmony, and religious freedom in Malaysia. Every time a government meets such intense challenges and succeeds as Malaysia seemingly has, the delicate and elusive ideal of religious harmony and freedom is advanced to the benefit of us all.
The 10-point solution to the Al-Kitab issue announced last Saturday reads as follows:
1. Bibles in all languages can be imported into the country, including Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia.
2. These Bibles can also be printed locally in Peninsula Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. This is a new development which should be welcome by the Christian groups.
3. Bibles in indigenous languages of Sabah and Sarawak such as Iban, Kadazan-Dusun and Lun Bawang can also be printed locally and imported.
4. For Sabah and Sarawak, in recognition of the large Christian community in these states, there are no conditions attached to the importation and local printing of the Bibles in all languages, including Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia and indigenous languages. There is no requirement for any stamp or serial number.
5. Taking into account the interest of the larger Muslim community, for Peninsular Malaysia, Bibles in Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia, imported or printed, must have the words “Christian Publication” and the cross sign printed on the front covers.
6. In the spirit of 1Malaysia and recognising that many people travel between Sabah and Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia, there should be no prohibitions and restrictions for people who bring along their bibles and Christian materials on such travel.
7. A directive on the Bible has been issued by the Secretary General (KSU) of the Home Ministry to ensure proper implementation of this cabinet decision. Failure to comply will subject the officers to disciplinary action under the General Orders. A comprehensive briefing by top officials, including the Attorney General (AG), will be given to all relevant civil servants to ensure good understanding and proper implementation of the directive.
8. For the impounded Bibles in Kuching, Gideon, the importer can collect all the 30,000 Bibles free of charge. We undertake to ensure the parties involved are reimbursed. The same offer remains available for the importer of the 5,100 Bibles in Port Klang, which have already been collected by the Bible Society Malaysia (BSM) last week.
9. Beyond the Bible issue, the Government wishes to reiterate its commitment to work with the Christian groups and all the different religious groups in order to address inter religious issues and work towards the fulfilment of all religious aspirations in accordance with the constitution, taking into account the other relevant laws of the country. In order to bring urgency to this work, the Prime Minister will meet the representatives of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) soon to discuss the way forward.
10. The Christian Ministers in the cabinet will meet on a regular basis with representatives of the various Christian groups in order to discuss their issues and work with the relevant Ministries and PM in order to resolve them.
Christian ministers in the cabinet approve this resolution. The owners of these Bibles, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), the legal owners of the 5,100 Bibles impounded in Port Klang, and Gideon, the importer of the 30,000 Bibles in Kuching have agreed to retrieve their respective shipments.
The government apologized
while announcing the 10 point resolution:
Datuk Seri Idris Jala, a spokesman for the government said that "in spite of our shortcomings in the management of this Bible issue, we hope that Christians will forgive us," and added that there is a need for care, forgiveness and reconciliation among Malaysians, "despite all the wounds created by our differences." The Bible Society of Malaysia has accepted the solution proposed by the government. Its president, Lee Min Choon, in a statement said they were “deeply touched by the government’s humility in admitting its shortcomings in its management of the problem and in asking for forgiveness." "The Bible Society of Malaysia forgives, without hesitation," he said.
Muslims are less pleased
The 10-point proposal has also drawn the ire of Muslim groups, who view it as the government caving in to Christian pressure.
Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria expressed his disappointment, reportedly saying, “If the government does this, just cancel the law,” in reference to various state Islamic enactments that prohibit the use of the word “Allah” and other so-called Islamic terms that led to the banning of the Malay Bible. Malay Bibles have not been allowed to be printed locally for fear that they will utilize “prohibited” words.
The Muslim Organizations in Defense of Islam (Pembela) threatened to challenge the 10-point proposal in court if it was not reviewed in consultation with Muslim representatives.
At bottom is a fundamental clash of religious values that only religious leaders themselves can sort out. In brief it has to do with the relationship between apostasy laws, and the "great commission." This is complicated and requires humble spiritual leadership that seeks light and guidance from God, Allah.
To my view, the Malaysian government has done commendably to the very limit possible for governments with regard to such matters. At the end of the day, only religious leaders can see us any further down to the road to a less fragile peace. Muslim leaders should find in the teachings resources to help Muslims believers embrace the government ruling, and Christian leaders should take special care to keep Christians humble and grateful in a time of "political victory." Muslim and Christian leaders should seize this tenuous moment to make special shows of public cooperation and solidarity with one another. Muslim and Christian leaders should take the lead to praise each other's traditions and communities. Christian leaders should take this opportunity publicly to study the Qu'ran, and Muslim leaders the Bible. This orientation is encouraged in the Qur'an
(Qur’an 002.062), and echoed in the sentiments of Christian King Negus of Abyssinia
who sheltered Muslims from Meccan persecution, and found between Islam and Christianity difference no greater than the width of a twig.