Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Copyrighting "Allah"? Ban re-imposed!

According to CNA, the Catholic News Agency,

'A senior government official in Malaysia has ordered a Catholic newspaper to drop the use of the word “Allah” in its Malay language section if it wants its publishing permit renewed, the Associated Press reports.

'The Herald, published by Malaysia’s Catholic Church, has translated the word God as “Allah.” Che Din Yusoff, a senior official at the Internal Security Ministry’s publications control unit, has said this usage is erroneous because “Allah” refers to the Muslim God. "Christians cannot use the word Allah. It is only applicable to Muslims. Allah is only for the Muslim god. This is a design to confuse the Muslim people," Che Din told the Associated Press. Che Din said that the newspaper should use the general term for God, the word “Tuhan.” '

You can read the entire article at Allah is only for Muslims, Malaysian official says.

As a linguist, I found this bit of news quite interesting, for it raises the question of whether we can copyright or protect our religious vocabulary. I have no idea what the arguments involved in this "Allah" usage are, and I have no idea which side is correct. Perhaps, Che Din Yusoff is right in asking Christians not to use "Allah"... Maybe the word "Allah" has connotations like the "Dainichi", which early Japanese Christians unwittingly used to refer to God, and later gave up after realizing that "Dainichi" was not the kind of God that they believed in.

A similar argument can be made as to why Christians may not feel at home with "Brahman", a Hindu word for God. "Brahman" may not be exactly what Christians mean by God the Almighty, for in Hinduism, Brahman is an "It" rather than a He or a She. In other words, the word "Brahman" often appears as an impersonal Almighty, although most Hindus may acknowledge God--perhaps referred to as Ishwar--to be a person as well. Can "God" be translated in all languages with all the adequate theological and dogmatic implications?

The point is, Is Allah the same as what Christians mean by God or what the Hindus mean by Brahman or Ishwar, or what the Japanese mean by Kami? Does Allah mean the one and only supreme God that Jews, Christians, and even most Hindus confess or is Allah the super-duper Islamic god who can beat up all the other gods of other religions?

If "Allah" just means "God", do people like Che Din feel that only Muslims, and no one else, can have any recourse to "God"? Or do they feel that "Allah" is one of the many gods, but the most powerful and the only True God, who can outwit the gods of Hindus, Christians, and others?

A related question: Could the Japanese ask Japanese Christians not to use the word "Kami" because it only refers to the Shinto god or a Buddhist god? Or could Hindus ask Christians to drop the use of "Ishwar" , which Christians currently use to refer to God or to Jesus?

The Malaysian case is pretty intriguing, for the word "Allah" is, presumably, Arabic, and not even Malay--except as a borrowed and incorporated word. So can Malay Muslims claim exclusive rights over a word which is not even theirs linguistically? Perhaps the Arabs can make such demands, though I have not heard of any such demands from Arabs. I wonder whether Christians in Muslim or Arab countries like Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria use the word "Allah" to refer to God. If anyone can enlighten me on that, I'd be grateful.

But even Arabs, can they claim exclusive right to the word "Allah" forbidding others from using it unless they become Muslims? A very interesting question... Linguistically, it seems similar to the "linguistic imperialism" arguments of native English speakers trying to assert their rights over the English language. The scholars of this school would like to see all non-native speakers of English use English exactly as they (the native speakers) do. Unfortunately though, currently nonnative English speakers outnumber native English speakers, and they tend to speak English as they like--ignoring the pressures from native speakers. It is also worth noting that English itself uses a large number of non-Anglo-Saxon or non-English words quite arbitrarily. Does English use all the words it has borrowed from Latin, Spanish, French, Hindi, Tamil, Japanese, Arabic, etc., in precisely the way they are used in the original languages?

Put broadly, can the native speakers of any language dictate how a word of their language should be used by others who don't share their beliefs or prejudices or dogmas?

Anyway, the latest news regarding the "Allah" question is that the Malaysian government 'has reversed its decision to ban the publication over its use of the word "Allah," easing a row that strained racial harmony in the multiethnic country.' Even the concerned Catholic editor, Fr. Andrew, seems to have been taken aback at the 'unconditional' permission he was granted. "There are no conditions, there was no mention of the Allah ban," Fr. Andrew told The Associated Press. Apparently, the security officials declined to comment when contacted. The background is given by the Jakarta Post as follows:
'The ministry had repeatedly warned The Herald [the concerned Catholic Weekly] that its printing permit may be revoked if it continued to use "Allah" as a synonym for God in its Malay-language section. After The Herald refused, it was told in early December that its Malay-language section would be banned from January." Here is the entire article: Malaysia backpedals on Allah ban for Christian paper, renews its permit

Well, the "Allah" news has another twist. As of January 4, 2008, various news reports say that the Malaysian government's ban on the use of "Allah" by other religions still stands! A reversal of a reversal or a misunderstanding, apparently. The Khaleej Times (4 January 2008) reports, "Abdullah Md Zin, a minister for religious affairs, said on Friday the ban on the use of the word remained despite the renewal of the permit [of the Catholic weekly Herald]. 'It was just the priest's interpretation that there was no restriction on the use of the word,' Abdullah told Reuters. This is the latest in a series of disputes that is feeding fears of a gradual erosion of the rights of non-Muslims."

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