The 'Nine Billion Names of God'? Christians in Malaysia can't use 'Allah'

One of the great science fiction short stories of all time is Arthur C. Clark's "The Nine Billion Names of God." The plot revolves around some Tibetan monks who believe the universe was created so that all the names for God could be listed. After all 9 billion names have been written down, the universe will end, say the monks.

After several hundred years of writing out the names of God in longhand, the monks employ two westerners to help them program a computer to finish the job.

They rent a computer capable of printing all the possible permutations, and they hire two Westerners to install and program the machine. The computer operators are sceptical but play along. After three months, as the job nears completion, they fear that the monks will blame the computer, and by extension its operators, when nothing happens. The Westerners delay the operation of the computer so that it will complete its final print run just after their scheduled departure. After their successful departure on ponies, they pause on the mountain path on their way back to the airfield, where a plane is waiting to take them back to civilization. Under a clear night sky they estimate that it must be just about the time that the monks are pasting the final printed names into their holy books. Then they notice that "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."

In Malaysia, what's going out without much fuss is religious freedom. The high court ruled that Allah as a name for God was the exclusive province of Muslims. Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus could not use the word "Allah" as a substitute for "God."

Malaysia -- Malaysia's top court on Monday upheld a government ban forbidding non-Muslims from using "Allah" to refer to God, rejecting an appeal by the Roman Catholic Church that argued that the law failed to consider the rights of minorities in the largely Muslim nation.

Although the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the 4-3 decision by the Federal Court is expected to reinforce complaints from Christians, Buddhist and Hindu minorities that non-Muslims do not always get fair treatment from the government and courts -- accusations the government denies.

"We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities?," said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the newspaper at the centre of the controversy.

"It will confine the freedom of worship," he added. "We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it."

Allah is the Arabic word for God and commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God. The court had ruled that Catholic Church had no grounds to appeal a lower court decision last year that kept it from using "Allah" in its Malay-language weekly publication.

The government says Allah should be reserved exclusively for Muslims -- who make up nearly two-thirds of the country's 29 million people -- because if other religions use it that could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert.

Christian representatives deny this, arguing that the ban is unreasonable because Christians who speak the Malay language have long used the word in their Bibles, prayers and songs before authorities sought to enforce the curb in recent years. Christians make up about 9 per cent of the population, with many living in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island.

The ban appears to apply mostly to published materials, not spoken words, and newspapers using the term would lose their license. Imported Malay-language Bibles containing the term Allah, typically from Indonesia, already have been blocked. Beyond that, it wasn't clear what the punishment would be for violating the ban.

Malaysia is supposed to be one of those "good Muslim" countries - tolerant, cosmopolitan, modern. I guess this ruling proves otherwise. Any challenge to Islam - no matter where - must be defeated for the religion to survive. The good Muslims in Malaysia may "tolerate" people of other faiths. But that doesn't mean they are equal by any stretch of the imagination.
 
By making "Allah" the exclusive province of Muslims, other communities of faith are put on notice their right to worship as they see fit can be taken away at any time. If the government can define what words are acceptable and unacceptable for Christians and others, they can also define any other religious practice the same way.
 

One of the great science fiction short stories of all time is Arthur C. Clark's "The Nine Billion Names of God." The plot revolves around some Tibetan monks who believe the universe was created so that all the names for God could be listed. After all 9 billion names have been written down, the universe will end, say the monks.

After several hundred years of writing out the names of God in longhand, the monks employ two westerners to help them program a computer to finish the job.

They rent a computer capable of printing all the possible permutations, and they hire two Westerners to install and program the machine. The computer operators are sceptical but play along. After three months, as the job nears completion, they fear that the monks will blame the computer, and by extension its operators, when nothing happens. The Westerners delay the operation of the computer so that it will complete its final print run just after their scheduled departure. After their successful departure on ponies, they pause on the mountain path on their way back to the airfield, where a plane is waiting to take them back to civilization. Under a clear night sky they estimate that it must be just about the time that the monks are pasting the final printed names into their holy books. Then they notice that "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."

In Malaysia, what's going out without much fuss is religious freedom. The high court ruled that Allah as a name for God was the exclusive province of Muslims. Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus could not use the word "Allah" as a substitute for "God."

Malaysia -- Malaysia's top court on Monday upheld a government ban forbidding non-Muslims from using "Allah" to refer to God, rejecting an appeal by the Roman Catholic Church that argued that the law failed to consider the rights of minorities in the largely Muslim nation.

Although the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the 4-3 decision by the Federal Court is expected to reinforce complaints from Christians, Buddhist and Hindu minorities that non-Muslims do not always get fair treatment from the government and courts -- accusations the government denies.

"We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities?," said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the newspaper at the centre of the controversy.

"It will confine the freedom of worship," he added. "We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it."

Allah is the Arabic word for God and commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God. The court had ruled that Catholic Church had no grounds to appeal a lower court decision last year that kept it from using "Allah" in its Malay-language weekly publication.

The government says Allah should be reserved exclusively for Muslims -- who make up nearly two-thirds of the country's 29 million people -- because if other religions use it that could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert.

Christian representatives deny this, arguing that the ban is unreasonable because Christians who speak the Malay language have long used the word in their Bibles, prayers and songs before authorities sought to enforce the curb in recent years. Christians make up about 9 per cent of the population, with many living in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island.

The ban appears to apply mostly to published materials, not spoken words, and newspapers using the term would lose their license. Imported Malay-language Bibles containing the term Allah, typically from Indonesia, already have been blocked. Beyond that, it wasn't clear what the punishment would be for violating the ban.

Malaysia is supposed to be one of those "good Muslim" countries - tolerant, cosmopolitan, modern. I guess this ruling proves otherwise. Any challenge to Islam - no matter where - must be defeated for the religion to survive. The good Muslims in Malaysia may "tolerate" people of other faiths. But that doesn't mean they are equal by any stretch of the imagination.
 
By making "Allah" the exclusive province of Muslims, other communities of faith are put on notice their right to worship as they see fit can be taken away at any time. If the government can define what words are acceptable and unacceptable for Christians and others, they can also define any other religious practice the same way.
 

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