Malaysia promotes itself as a peaceful, democratic, multi-ethnic, Muslim country. On December 31, a court ruled that non-Muslims, namely Christians, were finally allowed to use the word "Allah" as a term for God, which quickly prompted a government appeal. Following the ruling, nearly 11 churches have been attacked, Christians have been harassed, and even a Sikh temple and several mosques were vandalized.

Both the government's appeal and the conduct of several Malays seem to suggest discrimination towards their non-Muslim neighbors. Many in America assume this is due to an innate Muslim antagonism and elitism towards the "other." How would you explain this current phenomenon, and why is the term "Allah" only reserved for Muslims?

Anwar Ibrahim: The handling of the Allah issue sent the wrong message to people around the world about Islam. In the current climate of xenophobia in Europe and the U.S., how can we as Muslims say we are any better when we treat our non-Muslim citizens with disrespect and disdain? It is odd that this issue seems relevant only in Malaysia and not in the Middle East or even Indonesia.

Dialogue and engagement are essential. The mainstream media all controlled by the ruling coalition should present all viewpoints and not just the most extreme views supported by the government. Sensitive issues that touch on religious and ethnic sentiments should be handled delicately. Instead the government allowed the case to be dragged through the courts, sanctioned incendiary public demonstrations and only after the situation exploded in violence did its leaders start to make more measured statements and call for calm. I find this deplorable.

In Malaysia such posturing by Muslim leaders has much more to do with politics than religion and ideology. The ruling government hopes that by taking a hard line it will curry some favor with an increasingly radical right wing upon which its party is increasingly based. The recent caning of individuals for illicit sexual relations is likewise part of an effort to boost the perceived Islamic credentials of the government and portray the opposition as soft on morals and subservient to international pressure.

I understand there are broader concerns about the ability of contemporary Islamic societies to deal with issues of pluralism and diversity. Malaysia's handling of this issue is certainly not helping to abate these fears. But there is a silver lining. We have used this incident as an opportunity to launch a series of interfaith dialogues around the country. And I am very encouraged by statements from Pan Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS, which has come out strongly in support of the rights of all Malaysian citizens under the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of conscience and religion. (Part 1)



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