In a renewed sign that tensions may continue to rise between the various ethnic and religious groups of Malaysia, an appeal court has ruled that Christian publicans cannot use the word “Allah”, which is Arabic for the word God, in publications. For a country with extremely complex racial and religious relations, such news could cause already simmering tensions to boil over.

Christians

Allah should only be used by Muslims

The conflict stems from a decree by former home minister Syed Hamid Albar that Allah should only be used by Muslims. Prominent Christians then sued, arguing that the use of Allah is constitutionally protected. A lower court actually sided with the Christian representatives, which set off a series of small protests and vandalism against Christian and Muslim properties.

Interestingly, the teachings of Islam claim that the God of all Abrahamic religions is actually the same God. Islam holds Jesus Christ as a highly important prophet of God, along with Moses and other major figures for Christian and Jewish texts. This makes the ruling by the Malaysian court especially contentious, as according to Mohammad himself, the God of all three religions is the same. In fact, Arabic speaking Christians primarily use the word Allah to refer to God.

Malaysia enjoyed relatively high levels of religious tolerance

Compared with many other middle income and emerging countries, Malaysia has actually enjoyed relatively high levels of religious tolerance. The racial makeup in Malaysia is extremely complex with about 50% of Malaysians being Muslim Malay, another 10 percent being from other “native tribes” (which along with Malaysia are referred to as bumiputera), 25 percent Chinese, and approximately 7 percent being Indian.

The relations between these various groups has been largely stable since the founding of the country in 1963. In 1969 the country did suffer a race riot, which lead to the installation of tough national security laws (which have since been repealed). Beyond this incident, relations between the various communities has been largely stable.

Tensions between Christians and Muslims are now rising

Tensions have been rising in recent years, especially between the Chinese and Malay communities. This is especially interesting as most Malaysian Christians are also Chinese, while essentially every Malay is Muslim. With society now becoming increasingly divided along racial and religious lines, the recent ruling will only serve to heighten tensions.

Tensions between Christians and Muslims are now rising at the same time that racial tensions have also increased. Prime Minister Najib Razak has been increasingly focusing on building up power among the Malay community, but along the way has begun to step on the toes of other groups. Following a poor election showing this last May, Najib claimed that a Chinese tsunami was the culprit.

Conditions on the ground, however, are more complicated as many urban Malays are also leaving the ranks of the ruling Barisan Nasional party. The party has retained strong control among rural Malays, many of whom rely on the government for cash assistance and welfare handouts. As Malaysia continues to develop, however, more and more people will continue to join the urban middle class, most of whom actually oppose BN. This leads the ruling party in a difficult position: in order to stay in power, the economy must continue to grow. At the same time, as the economy grows, more people will join the urban middle class, which is now strongly opposed to BN.

For better or worse, the recent ruling against Christians may only serve to fuel resentment between the various racial and religious communities in Malaysia. This may push even more middle and upper middle class urban voters away from UMNO. And while Malaysia has enjoyed strong economic growth over recent years, this track record could be seriously threatened by renewed racial violence.