See the UPDATE appended to this post, originally published on 1.1.08
The Malaysian government has banned the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims. The country's Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs must also stop using three other "Muslim-only" words: Baitullah, 'house of God,' solat, 'prayer,' and Kaabah, 'holy house.'
Although the country’s constitution protects freedom of religion, government authorities fear that if the significant minority non-Muslims continue to use “Allah” as a synonym for their own gods, then the 60% Muslim majority will lose focus and become confused, and that in turn could lead to rioting and conversion.
Resting on a bench beneath the word "Allah" written on the wall outside the Old Mosque in Edirne, Turkey
Threats to suspend the license of the weekly Catholic newspaper The Herald for printing the word "Allah" in its Malay-language editions were dropped in response to adverse international publicity over the government’s god-ban for nonbelievers, but the ban remains in place, and Sabah Evangelical Church is suing the government for confiscating a shipment of Malay Christian books with the word “Allah” in them.
The Herald is no longer threatened with government sanctions for using “Allah” in its Malay-language edition.
The Malaysian government's position on who owns "Allah" may be shaky both on religious and linguistic grounds. "Allah," a general word for 'god,' occurs in pre-Islamic Arabic, and it was used early on to refer to the god of the Old and New Testament as well the god of Islam.
In this 19th-century text "Allah" (underlined) refers to the god of the Talmud.
And this 16th-century Arabic translation of the Gospel of St. Mark, printed in Rome, calls Jesus "the son of Allah" (underlined; image links courtesy of Slavomir Céplö)
What is true of Arabic seems also to be true of Malay. Malaysian Christians, citing Malay translations of the New Testament as early as the 18th century, argue that "Allah" has always been a general term for 'god' in Bahasa Melayu, or Malay, to use its English name. R. J. Wilkinson's respected Malay-English Dictionary (1908) defines "Allah" simply as "God," and while he includes some specific Muslim references to "Allah," Wilkinson also records the use of "Allah" referring to Hindu deities, and he translates the Malay phrase "menduakan Allah" as "to worship more gods than one."
What's more, the official, government-approved Malay Dictionary, the Kamus Dewan, translates "Allah" as "Ar tuhan," another general term for 'god' or 'lord' sometimes used for the god of Islam, sometimes not (and, as in English, sometimes used for human lords as well). All this suggests that "Allah" in Malay can indeed be used both as a general term meaning 'deity' and in specific Islamic contexts.
Name taboos are common in cultures around the world: one group can't name the dead or recently departed, another can't call a living child or parent by their true name but must use a nickname or honorific title. There are idiosyncratic taboos, like calling Shakespeare's Macbeth "the Scottish play" for good luck, or saying "you know who" instead of Voldemort. And it's not unusual to quarrel over who can or can't name God. In some religions, like Judaism, the name of God is taboo, and the faithful must resort to euphemisms and epithets when saying or writing the unnamable divine.
Malaysia's is just the latest Islamic language taboo to make the headlines. Sudan recently jailed a British teacher for allowing her seven-year-old students to name their class teddy bear "Muhammad." Muhammad is one of the most common boys' names in the Sudan, but overnight it became taboo for British teachers and plush toys. Sudanese extremists were so outraged by the bear-naming gaffe that they called for the teacher's execution before a firing squad. Clearly, the Malaysian government would like "Allah" to be taboo for non-Muslims there, but it didn't attempt to jail violators or execute them, at least not yet.
Forces in the West responded to the Sudanese ban on ursine nomenclature by launching their own weapon of mass destruction, entrepreneurial capitalism: a website is selling cuddly "Teddy Bear Muhammad" stuffed animals and bumper stickers proclaiming, "Support the right to BEAR names" (though fearing reprisals, or perhaps because the website is a satire, not a real business, it lists no mailing address). And a Danish newspaper has commissioned a group of artists to respond to bans on "Muhammad" and "Allah" with cartoons guaranteed to provoke rioting and murder in already volatile countries like Pakistan, and stir up civil discord long-distance in Malaysia.
It's not clear whether this bumper sticker is being flogged on a real commercial web site, or it's just a bit of anonymous political satire, or both.
But while the Danish cartoonists and purveyors of taboo teddies hide behind the anonymity of the Internet, the United States has vowed to meet the Malaysian challenge head on. Two years ago Iranian Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad banned English words from Farsi, and on a recent trip to the United States Ahmadinejad added the words "Columbia" and "University" to his growing list of taboos. Still smarting over this insult from a Muslim country, Pres. George W. Bush is threatening to retaliate against Malaysia's anti-Christian crusade by banning "Allah" altogether.
According to Bush, the Koran is "the great bible-kind-of-book" of the people he referred to as the "Islamanians," who are all good and faithful followers of one of the world's great "religionisms." But White House press secretary Dana Perino explained to reporters that while Bush has the greatest respect for Islam and its practitioners, he is considering a ban on "Allah" because it is not even an English word, and the president believes that all of America's founding documents, from the Declaration of Independence, to the Star-Spangled Banner, to the Bible, should be read only in their original English. Perino told reporters who asked what the president would say instead of "Allah," that Vice Pres. Cheney, whose personal favorite is "waterboarding," will head a task force to come up with an acceptable and constitutional English alternative.
White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters that the president may soon issue a fatwa on "Allah."
UPDATE: The actual publication of the proposed Danish cartoons of Muhammed, mentioned above, led to violent protests in which some protestors died. The protests, in turn, led to the suppression of the cartoons, even in a recent scholarly treatment of the controversy published by an American university press, and most recently, an attempt to kill one of the Danish cartoonists.
The Malay ban on Allah is back in the news again as well: on Dec. 31, 2009, Malaysian courts overturned the government ban on the use of Allah by nonbelievers. The uproar that followed this decision resulted in the firebombing of several churches and Christian schools in Kuala Lumpur. That wouldn't happen in the Middle East, according to Anthony Shadid, who writes in the New York Times that the use of Allah to refer to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim god is common in the Arabic of the region.