The Fallout from Malaysia's Allah Flap

The arrest Wednesday of eight men who allegedly firebombed Kuala Lumpur's Metro Tabernacle Church on Jan. 7 appears to indicate that a sobering leadership is starting to count the cost of inflaming ethnic passions over the Dec. 31 court verdict that allowed non-Muslims to use the word "Allah" to refer to God.

According to local media, the suspects were all ethnic Malays from 21 to 26 years old. Police tracked them down after one sought treatment at a hospital for burn injuries, according to the report.

Otherwise, other than a couple of drunks throwing empty liquor bottles at mosques in Sarawak, the controversy has died down, leaving behind it Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's so-called 1Malaysia pretensions to racial toleration in a shambles. And, if rumors are to be believed that he wanted to call a snap election in May, so are his political plans.

It will also probably be a long time before Malaysia's always sensitive racial equation heals, say numerous sources in Kuala Lumpur. The totals are disheartening. At least 11 churches and, for unexplained motives, a Sikh temple, were damaged. The Metro Taberenacle was hit hardest by Malay firebombers outraged by High Court Justice Lau Bee Lan's decision that the Malaysian constitution allowed the Catholic Herald, which is sold only on church grounds and bears the label FOR NON-MUSLIMS ONLY, to use the word Allah for God in its Malay language edition and inflamed by political rhetoric.

It is unclear of this point how much damage the affair has done to Malaysia's international standing as a moderate Muslim country, but it has been considerable. The images of firebombed churches have flashed across the world's major media, delivering a blow to the country's standing. The Home Ministry brought in scores of foreign diplomats to brief them in an attempt to shore up the country's tolerant standing. The government also has a standing RM20 million (US$5.99 million) contract with the Washington, DC-based APCO Worldwide to seek to polish its image, a good deal wiser than the country's former relationship to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Although Justice Lau's decision was stayed at the request of the attorney general on Jan. 6, protesters attacked churches across the country the next day and as many as 200,000 more signed onto a Facebook page attacking the decision as well.

Nor does the issue appear likely to go away soon. Malaysian Insider, an online news outlet in Kuala Lumpur, reported on Jan. 20 that an organization called Perkasa, an UMNO offshoot capitalizing on the disgruntlement of ethnic Malays, has been lodging police reports against politicians who stand in their way over the Allah issue and appear ready to intensify the fight for ketuanan Melayu -- Malay supremacy and against Najib's plans for economic liberalization.

The common perception is that the United Malays National Organization fomented the early January demonstrations in a bid to solidify support within the ethnic Malay community, which makes up about 60 percent of the population. After the relative debacle of the March 2008 elections, in which the Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament, and subsequent scandals that virtually destroyed the Chinese and Indian ethnic parties, the national ruling coalition has increasingly seen that its fortunes lie with ethnic Malays. Political analysts say the two main Malay opposition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Parti Islam se-Malaysia, took 49 percent of the Malay vote in the 2008 national election. UMNO drew 51 percent.

The Malay-language Utusan Melayu newspaper, which is controlled by UMNO, was especially virulent in its attacks on the decision. Najib himself on Jan. 7 told the country that Muslims had the right to demonstrate in mosques over the decision. Many critics hold that statement by Najib responsible for kicking off the church burnings, as was echoed by Home Affairs Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, who later backed up and said the government would not hesitate to use the Internal Security Act against the culprits if they can be found.

Najib himself appeared chastened by the violence, saying that: "Acts such as the burning of the house of worship of other religions are a heinous act. He was joined by several cabinet members and deputies who visited the Metro Tabernacle church, whose ground floor was gutted. The government announced a RM500,000 relocation fund for the church. "This is a sincere contribution from the government," Najib told reporters.

The government can only be called confused over the language issue. On Jan. 18, Nazri Aziz, a minister in the prime minister's department, said three states and the Federal Territories – Penang, Sabah and Sarawak and possibly Kuala Lumpur – would be allowed to use the word Allah but that it would be prohibited in the others. In the states of Pahang and Malacca, the word nabi (prophet) is banned and the Malay word for Bible (Injil) is banned in 10 states. The Bahasa Indonesia version of Charles Darwin's classic "On the Origin of Species" which is very close to Bahasa Malaysia, is banned in Malaysia although the English original is freely available.

Najib, according to the common wisdom in Kuala Lumpur, thought that in January UMNO could take back the state of Selangor, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur, and which the opposition had won in the March 2008 general election. That may have been a miscalculation. He still needs Indian and Chinese votes. Until the current blowup he had been crusading assiduously for them, including hiring APCO Worldwide to deliver the 1Malaysia message to the country.

"He may have been thinking about it before the Allah ruling but not now," said a source in Kuala Lumpur. "This is giving Najib headaches which turn to nightmares each time a church is burnt. The Christians are not happy and not just with him but with some of his ministers, with the exception of the Metro Tabernacle, which received monetary aid to build a new church. The Christians are angry with the IGP for saying there is not enough cops to guard churches."

"The Malay votes alone are not enough for him," the source said. "He needs the votes of the non-Malays. He planned to capture Selangor and is going all out to do so. But his chances are hurt now because the Sultan decreed only Muslims in his state can use Allah and non-Muslims in his state can't. "

In particular, Sabah and Sarawak, where nearly half the states are Christian and only 25-30 percent are Muslims, have been alienated by the attacks on churches.

"Umno has said that Sabah and Sarawak, which control 56 out of 222 Parliament seats, are Barisan Nasional's 'fixed deposit'," saiTd another analyst. "Some are saying it is time Sabah and Sarawak 'withdrew their fixed deposit'." In the 2008 election, only one seat in each of the two states went to the Democratic Action Party, the Chinese wing of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. So Umno is in deep shit if the Sabah and Sarawak people swing."

Will they? The politics of Sarawak and Sabah often hinge on which party hands out the plastic sheets for roofing.

"People have very short memories and money can smooth out any unhappiness," the analyst said. "It's really very hard to tell because many may keep it in their heart and demonstrate their feelings though the ballot box like what happen in March 2008 and which took everyone by surprise."