Thursday, January 03, 2008

Malaysia, Indonesia: Equally intolerant

Opinion and Editorial, The Jakarta Post (January 3, 2008)

Al Makin

Rather than highlight the common beliefs Muslims and Christians share during Id al-Adha and Christmas celebrations recently, the Malaysian government decided to focus on their ifferences.

A Catholic weekly newspaper, The Herald, was told to stop using the word "Allah" recently, as it supposedly belongs exclusively to Muslims.

It appears levels of religious tolerance in Malaysia are not too different from those in eighboring Indonesia. The move to stop the word "Allah" being used in non-Muslim publications is to some extent comparable to the many fatwas (religious edicts) introduced by the Indonesian Ulema council (MUI), including in relation to the case of Ahmadiyah.

Another point of substantial comparison can perhaps be drawn here. While the fatwa condemning Ahmadiyah has often been misused by radical groups, religious discrimination toward minority groups can also be felt in Malaysia, especially in relation to this recent case.
The recent claim made by Malaysian authorities rests merely on fallacies, evident in at least the historical, theological and political spheres.

As far as both Western and Muslim scholars are concerned, the word "Allah" has been commonly used by Arabs since pre-Islamic times. In this regard, one cannot ignore the fact that "Allah" cannot be divorced from Judeo-Christian traditions.

Islam can simply be viewed as an heir to these monotheistic traditions. It has continued the legacy of the word "Allah" in that it refers to "one God".

Historically and theologically speaking, Islam neither emerged or stood alone in this world. It has always been a part of the complex history of Judaism, Christianity and, last but not least, humanity.

Although Malaysia is at the moment luckier than Indonesia in terms of economy, it is no stronger in terms of democracy. Indeed, freedom of expression in the political realm can be felt more in Indonesia than in Malaysia. Aside from the fact political opposition is no longer taboo in Indonesia, Indonesians are also able to criticize their government much more openly than Malaysians can.

The orders handed down to The Herald by the Malaysian authorities were politically incorrect in regard to freedom of expression.

Unfortunately, some radical Indonesian writers view Malaysian intellectuals as being higher than their Indonesian counterparts. It is concerning that radical yet popular writers have irrationally attacked leading Indonesian scholars, including Amin Abdullah, Azyumardi Azra, Komaruddin Hidayat, Achmad Syafi'i Ma'arif, Dawam Rahardjo and Djalaluddin Rachmat.
It is far from my intention here to criticize everything related to Malaysia, but it is undeniable that two major terrorists, Azahari and Noordin M. Top, are Malaysian citizens and have trained a number of terrorists in Indonesia.

Before he became well-known, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir's activities also took place in Malaysia. Indonesians do feel threatened by radicalism coming from those who proudly associate themselves with Malaysia. Indeed, these people are always ready to poison young Indonesians through the online media, telling them to hate any intellectual thinking but to accept dogmatic and ideological blindness (taklid).

This does not necessarily mean we should hate everything coming out of Malaysia. We should learn from each other, as we have always done. In the past Malaysian students obtained their degrees in Indonesia, while Indonesian students also studied at Malaysian universities.

To illustrate this point, an Indonesian liberal activist, Lutfi Syaukani, was also educated in Malaysia. In addition to this, some Indonesian intellectuals have also migrated to Malaysia so as they are better appreciated. There are intellectuals in both countries. Perhaps Dr. Farish M. Noor should be regarded as an example of a model Malaysian intellectual with an international reputation.

Malaysia is no different to Indonesia. As neighbors, we both need to learn much more about religious tolerance and protecting minority groups.

The writer is a lecturer at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta and a Ph.D Candidate sponsored by the Deutsche Academische Austausch Dienst at Heidelberg University. He can be reached at


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