Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Court decides but dispute continues

Where do we go from here?

The High Court verdict favoring the Christians on the Allah issue has been largely magnified and politicized by many quarters for their own benefits. It resulted in the firebombing of several churches all over the country. It was interesting that although the majority of Muslims were not comfortable with the idea of Christians calling God Allah but nevertheless the vast majority of them strongly opposed the attacks on churches that followed. These acts of arson were condemned severely by many Muslims themselves including many prominent Islamic scholars, leaders and politicians from both sides.

The reconciliatory gestures and goodwill of moderate Muslims towards Christians that followed were unbelievable and unprecedented. The peaceful and mature response from the Christians appealing for calm and forgiveness too was encouraging. The whole episode though undesirable, brought positive results for the future of inter-religious relations that form the basis of long term peace and harmony in multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia.

The courts are not the best places to solve inter-religious disputes especially in our country, where politicization of almost every institution has eroded their integrity. Furthermore race and religion are rather emotional and sensitive issues that can only be solved by dialogue in the spirit of goodwill and brotherhood. Unless we can create an environment of goodwill and brotherhood there will be no compromise which is so vital for overcoming inter-ethnic conflicts.

Well we have passed that stage and now the High Court has decided in our favor but the Umno-led government and politicians are not ready to accept the verdict and have appealed against it. There is a high possibility the appeal will be upheld and we will be back to where we started but minus the goodwill we had with the government. Where do we go from here? The only way forward is dialogue, Muslim, Christian and Muslim-Christian and ultimately inter-faith which more Muslims are beginning to accept.

For the Muslims in the country this issue has divided them in terms of their opinion regarding the court verdict. Since then have been attempts by moderate Muslims to organize dialogue and debate among them in a peaceful and civil manner with regards to the legal, religious and socio-politic implications of the High Court verdict. This is indeed encouraging as it may be the beginning of the moderates taking control to lead them into the middle path.

There seem to be general agreement among the Muslims that historically the word Allah has been used by non-Muslims all over the world. However they seem to be alarmed at the thought of it being used here. This is basically due to deeply rooted fundamental insecurities with which Malay leaders must come to terms. From a very young age the Muslims are segregated and taught that Allah belongs to them alone and non-Muslims are to call God by other names. All of a sudden when the latter want to claim Allah as also theirs, it is only natural for them to react with suspicion and anger.

We see some positive signs and we must give them time which is always on our side. Let us find ways to strengthen the moderate Muslims further and not weaken them by demanding that our rights be granted immediately. By doing so we would only be playing into the hands of the minority extremists who would not hesitate to use violence to stop us from being granted our rights.

It is also timely for us Catholics and Christians of all other denominations to get together like our Muslim brethren to find a common middle ground in dealing with this and many other inter-religious disputes in the country. We have a God-given opportunity for us to unite despite the differences among us and we must not foolish to let it pass. If we who believe in Jesus cannot unite in his name, it would be naïve of us to expect to unite with those who do not believe in him.

At the same time as Catholics we must examine ourselves to see whether we ourselves are taking a moderate stand which we expect the Muslims to so. Do we see the logic and reason of those who differ from us? Are we reasonable in our demands from others? Are we listening to those we claim to serve?

We will most likely reach a deadlock in the Allah dispute if the Appeals Court squashes the High Court judgment. What next for us? Fr.Lawrence Andrew, the editor of Herald did the right thing by agreeing to the stay of the High Court judgment and refrain from using Allah while waiting for the appeal. We should continue refraining regardless of the outcome of the appeal and try to build on the unexpected goodwill shown to us by many fellow Muslims for long term peace.

The proper thing for the Church now is to go back to its people for internal dialogue and debate to get their feedback and opinion. It is the people who are affected by what the Church does not the clergy who hardly deal with fellow Muslims. It is the people who live, work and interact with Muslims day and night. It is their children who play, eat, study and grow up together with Muslim children. How can they do these in peace and harmony if there is so much mutual suspicion and ill-feeling among them in the neighborhood, offices, schools and places of work? Unfortunately such dialogue and debate are never a practice in our Catholic Church.

The clergy, who represent the people, must consider the people’s interests in whatever actions they resort to in disputes that the church may encounter from time to time. These should not be seen merely from a legal, historic or theological aspect but from a humane one that takes into consideration the good human values of peaceful co-existence – a considerate and caring attitude that tries to understand and allay the fears and anxiety of one another, however unreasonable they may be, especially those from a different race and creed.

Dr.Chris Anthony