Be Careful What You Call God

January 28, 2010

Allah (maybe)

Every week, if not more often, it seems there is a reminder about the ridiculous disputes caused by religion. Last week, we had the controversy over gun sights with New Testament messages. This week there is an escalation of the controversy in Malaysia about what word non-Muslims can use to refer to God.

Here's the background: On December 31, the Malaysia High Court ruled that a Catholic newspaper could use the word "Allah" when referring to God, overturning a government ban on use of that word by non-Muslims. The Catholic newspaper argued that in the Malay language, "Allah" means "God," so there was no effective way to discuss God without that word. The recommended substitute, "tuhan," which means "lord," has different connotations, suggesting a political ruler or boss, and also would have made it difficult to translate expressions such as "the Lord God." The Catholic newspaper also pointed out that the word "Allah" was used in the Arabic language to designate God in pre-Islamic times, so its history is not tied to Islam.

(Actually, I think we should call God "Brownie," the nickname for Bush's head of FEMA. It suggests the right level of incompetence, especially when dealing with disasters.)

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the ruling sparked protests and violence, including attacks by Muslims on churches. Following an appeal by the government, the High Court stayed its ruling.

But it could not stay the turmoil between Muslims and Christians (and other religious minorities). In the latest incident, the severed heads of wild boars were left at two mosques. Since Muslims regard pigs as unclean, this is considered a grave insult.

When I read a story about the last incident, I was reminded of Karen Armstrong's claim in her recent book The Case for God. (My review will appear in the next issue of Free Inquiry .) Armstrong claims that mainstream religion is concerned with ritual and conduct, not beliefs, and disputes over words and concepts have only been the concern of fringe elements in the world's different faith systems.

Oh, really? Pardon the pun, but this is just hogwash. Ordinary believers throughout history have been very much preoccupied with dogma and the words and concepts used to articulate their beliefs. Saying the wrong word, rejecting accepted concepts can get you killed. And apparently one can't even discuss God if doing so entails use of a word regarded sacred by some. Don't touch my Allah!

Maybe some day people will just drop all the God-talk and we can stop this nonsense.

(OK, I know that's wishful thinking.)

In the meantime, I feel sorry for the boars -- especially as they were probably more intelligent than the disputants on either side.