Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Allah," Dominant Cultures, and Tolerance

Update (January 10, 2010)
It's six churches in Malaysia now.
"2 more churches in Malaysia firebombed in 'Allah' row"
CNN (January 10, 2010)

"Two more churches in Malaysia were firebombed Sunday, bringing the total to six since a court ruled that non-Muslims can use the word 'Allah' as a term for God.

"No one has been hurt in the attacks, which began Friday. They follow a high court's ruling that Christians can use the word 'Allah' in literature printed in the country's official language, Malay.

"In Malay, the word for God is 'Allah,' as it is in Arabic.

"But many in the predominantly Muslim country, including the government, believe the word should be exclusive to Islam.

"The government has banned the use of the word in Christian literature, saying it is likely to confuse Muslims and draw them to Christianity...."
Prime Minister Najib Razak is either doing damage control for Islam, or trying to defuse a testy situation.

In fairness, America has seen anti-Islamic behavior.

For example, almost two years ago someone burned a mosque in Tennessee. Then the local (Christian) churches in town provided room for Muslims in the community to worship. A few days the churches had raised $10,000 for rebuilding the mosque, and were bringing in more money. Three white supremacists were charged in the crime. (February 16, 2008, February 13, 2008)

And late last year, someone put arguably pornographic anti-Islamic posters up in St. Cloud, Minnesota. (December 11, 2009)

What's going on in Malaysia - the government's recent confiscation of over 20,000 Bibles, and a half-dozen churches burned this weekend - seems to be a bit more that the work of a few disgruntled jerks.

It's really hard to avoid the impression that the Islam, Malaysian style, is turning into the weird mutation we've seen in "defend Islam from a teddy bear" Sudan and "women should only use one eye" Saudi Arabia.

It would take someone who's pathologically optimistic, to say that this period is Islam's shining hour.

From today's news:
"Fourth church attacked in Malaysia as Allah row deepens"
Reuters (January 9, 2010)

"Arsonists in Malaysia struck a fourth church on Saturday as the government tried to soothe tensions arising from a row over the use of the word "Allah" to refer to the Christian God."


"The unprecedented attacks risk dividing the mainly Muslim nation of 28 million people, which has significant religious minorities, and complicating Prime Minister Najib Razak's plan to win back support from the non-Muslims before the next elections by 2013.

"The row, over a court ruling that allowed a Catholic newspaper to use Allah in its Malay-language editions, prompted Muslims to protest at mosques on Friday and sparked arson attacks on three churches that saw one Pentecostalist church gutted.

"While Najib visited the badly damaged Pentecostalist church and offered a government grant of half a million ringgit ($148,100) to maintain 'a harmonious society,' church leaders said they wanted more concrete assurances of safety.

" 'We ask the government to make a strong statement to these wrongdoers so we can worship in peace on Sunday,' Reverend Hermen Shastri, secretary-general to the Council of Churches Malaysia, told Reuters...."

Religion and Politics

More, from the same article:
"...Christians account for nine percent of the 28 million population, with a sizable number of non-English speaking Christians in Malaysia's Borneo island states of Sabah and Sarawak who have used the word 'Allah' for decades.

"Najib's handling of the issue will determine whether he can keep the support of the Malays and win back ethnic Chinese and Indian voters to solidify his grip on power after taking control of the government last year...."
I'm glad I'm not Prime Minister Najib Razak - or any other political leader. It's hard enough, making rational decisions, without the added complication of trying to retain at least grudging support from "the public." Particularly when "the public" includes groups whose decision-making process appears to be anything but rational.

Add religion to the mix, and leadership can be really exciting.

Before I write anything else:

A Clarification

Judging from server logs, quite a few people who read this blog use ISPs in the United States. (I do not track individuals, and don't have the resources to do so: but I do pay attention to browser statistics.) Many others are in western Europe.

Odds are, you've heard that religion and science get along as well as mongoose and cobra; and that faith and reason are utterly, totally, completely and diametrically opposed concepts. I know that, at least since the 19th century, one of the dearly-cherished notions in American culture is that faith and reason are utterly incompatible.

This post may make a bit more sense, if you realize that I do not go along with the crowd on this point. Although I have heard and read statements which are rather clearly "religious," and which seemed to be comparatively unsullied by logic or reason: I do not think that faith and reason are incompatible.

As with so many other things, 'if a hundred million people really believe in a stupid idea, it's still a stupid idea.' In my opinion, "vox populi, vox dei" notwithstanding. I've discussed my views on reason and faith in another blog, and put links to some posts in From A Catholic Citizen in America below, under "Related posts." (I'm the Catholic citizen, by the way: That's right: I'm one of those people.)

Back to Who Gets to Say "Allah," Tolerance, and All That

Yet another quote from that Reuters article. This will be the second-to-last in this post - really.
"..."Don't point fingers and say UMNO is racist...when churches are burned," he said referring to his party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) that is the linchpin of the National Front that has ruled the country for 52 years.

"But Malay-Muslims, including those in UMNO, fear the word could be used by Christians to proselytize to Muslims, which is already illegal in the Southeast Asian country...."

The Myriad Faces of Tolerance

A legal ban on Christian proselytizing? It sounds so reasonable, in a way. Particularly, from a few politically correct points of view, Malays are foreigners, and non-Western at that: so just about anything they do is okay.

Besides, 'everybody knows' what those Christians are like. (Actually, I remember the 'good old days,' when one "Christian" group near the campus I was on seemed to be working on a quota system. I've suspected that their hard-sell tactics may account for quite a few of today's American Buddhists. But that's another topic.

Yeah: I can see where someone would want to ban Christian proselytizing. Or Muslim proselytizing, for that matter. And no, that's not different.

I emphatically do not want legal restrictions on people telling other people about what they believe, and why. I think that existing legal sanctions against people who advocate murder take care of extreme cases, like some hypothetical bunch of head-hunters.

It's no altruism on my part. I'm a convert to Catholicism, and am all too well aware at what it's like to be part of a religious minority. No 'victimology' here - just noting that a whack job warning about Jesuit assassins is merely an extreme on one continuum of attitude toward Catholics and other "Satanic cults."

Tolerance For Me, and Nobody Else?!

I think all too many people, when they say they want "tolerance," actually mean that they want those people who agree with them to be free to say what they like, have unrestricted access - tax-supported, if possible - to communications channels, while people who don't have the approved beliefs are sanctioned if they try to say what they think.

Americans are human beings, with all the failings - and potential - that goes with it. It shouldn't be surprising that America doesn't have a perfect record when it comes to tolerance. Two recent examples come to mind:

Blacklists: HUAC and Commie Hunts

You've probably heard of it as the "Hollywood blacklist," but the House on Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC, searched for commies far beyond that Los Angeles suburb. I'm a bit unfair with that heading: the House on Un-American Activities Committee didn't brand everybody in Hollywood as a commie, and all physicists weren't blacklisted for flirting with communism - or having a relative who did.

But the 'McCarthy era' hurt a great many people for what seem now to be frivolous reasons. I remember the trailing edge of it, and it left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Political Correctness

Where many if not most Americans know about the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism, and recognize it as a bad idea, "political correctness" may not ring as many bells.

I've gotten the idea that it's a non-phenomena that never existed, as far as some of the 'better sort' are concerned. Can't say that I blame them. PC's effect on American academia has the potential, I think, to do to liberal philosophy what McCarthyism did to the conservative world view, about a half-century back now.

I've discussed PC and related topics quite often: March 4, 2009, June 27, 2008, April 29, 2008, for starters.

People who say that political correctness doesn't exist, and never did, may not be lying. To lie is (among other things) "tell an untruth; pretend with intent to deceive" (Princeton's WordNet) [emphasis mine] I made the point, March 28, 2008, that a commander at Fort Detrick had probably said something about powdered anthrax that wasn't true: but that he wasn't lying.

To lie, a person has to make a statement - with knowledge that the statement is false.

Over Age in Grade Campus Radicals

When someone - let's call him George. Let's also say that George was part of an exciting, vibrant social movement in his youth. George saw many of his dreams realized, and has for the last several decades lived and worked among people with ideas and ideals very much like his.

How nice for George.

And how easy for George to slip into the habit of assuming that all nice, reasonable people are just like him: who believe just about exactly what he believes.

There are socially-conservative Christians like that.

There are also, I'm quite convinced, quite a number of academics like George.

A Brief Flashback to the 'Good Old Days'

I was was in a peace march, in the early seventies, for my own reasons. But I wasn't really committed to a people's movement against oppressor classes. Actvists' Utopian dreams looked good on paper, but even then I had been learning a little too much about homo sapiens sapiens and the last few thousand years of history to think that a people's collective would really work. Not on a large scale, anyway.

Turns out, judging from what happened in Russia in the early nineties, I was right. But that's yet another topic.

The point is, that quite a few people who were campus radicals, back in the 'good old days,' are now old coots around my age.

Quite a few of them went on to pursue successful academic careers.

I had different plans. After college, I had jobs chopping beets, being a radio disk jockey, delivering flowers, and working as an advertising copywriter.

Lucky me. No kidding.1

Philosophical stances aside, what most distinguishes me from over age in grade campus radicals is, I think, my knowledge that Woodstock is history, disco is dead, and a whole lot has happened since transistors stopped being stand-alone components.

Unkind? Unfair? Maybe: but I think that the implications of global online communities, who do not depend on 'official' information gatekeepers, haven't quite sunk in for many traditional academicians.

Back to Malaysia and Tolerance

Just a short review: that Reuters article's leader was:
""Arsonists in Malaysia struck a fourth church on Saturday as the government tried to soothe tensions arising from a row over the use of the word "Allah" to refer to the Christian God."
I've discussed religion quite a bit in this post - more than is usual for this blog. That's because
  • Quite a number of Muslims have fairly well-defined religious beliefs
    • Including those in Malaysia
  • I have fairly well-defined religious beliefs, myself
  • I prefer tolerance over intolerance
    • The issue in Malaysia appears to be primarily one of religious tolerance
      • Although I think other factors are in play
        • Ethnic differences
        • Economic imbalance
          • Real or
          • Imagined
I find comparisons useful. Since the "row" in Malaysia over what "Allah" is supposed to mean, and who is allowed to use the term, is - apparently - a religious issue, it seems sensible to compare Malaysia with the country whose language, culture, and customs I know best: America.

America is a "Christian" country, right? Well, sort of. A 2007 estimate broke out religious belief, or lack of it, this way:
  • Protestant 51.3%
  • Roman Catholic 23.9%
  • Mormon 1.7%
  • other Christian 1.6%
  • Jewish 1.7%
  • Buddhist 0.7%
  • Muslim 0.6%
  • other or unspecified 2.5%
  • unaffiliated 12.1%
  • none 4%
    ("World Factbook," United States, CIA (last updated November 27, 2009))
There was a time, not too many generations back, when America was overwhelmingly Protestant. Some folks are still getting used to the change. Which is yet another topic, again.2

Let's look at Malaysian religious beliefs, from 2000:
  • Muslim 60.4%
  • Buddhist 19.2%
  • Christian 9.1%
  • Hindu 6.3%
  • Confucianism, Taoism, other traditional Chinese religions 2.6%
  • other or unknown 1.5%
  • none 0.8%
    ("World Factbook," Malaysia, CIA (last updated December 22, 2009))
Malaysia 9 years ago reminds me of how I remember America, around the sixties: Just substitute "Protestant" for Muslim and "Catholic" for Buddhist. I'm talking ratios here - and recalling an impression. It was surprisingly difficult to find data for religious affiliation in America, past about 1990. I couldn't find anything from what I thought would be accepted as a reliable source. Not that I spent all that long, looking.

Where was I? Right. Malaysia, America, percentages of who believes what.

Whether or not Malaysian Muslims have a point in trying to keep everyone else from using the word "Allah" in a way they don't like is more than I know. I suppose the question could be approached like a trademark dispute: but some Muslims in Malaysia probably wouldn't like that, either.

One point that interested me was that, according to Reuters, Christians in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak who don't speak English have used the word "Allah" to mean "the Christian God" for decades.3

Freedom of Expression Must Extend to Everybody: Not Just the Majority

Muslims in Malaysia may be on a voyage of discovery, in which they'll have opportunities to learn how to have sincere religious beliefs: without wanting to either kill everybody who doesn't agree with them; or make it illegal for 'the wrong sort' to talk about what they believe.

America, with quite a few stumbles along the way, has come - grudgingly, it sometimes seems - to a point where, by and large, and with notable exceptions, most people are free to believe what they want. And, again by and large, free to discuss what they believe in public.

I don't agree with everything that Muslims and Evangelicals and Buddhists and Taoists and Atheists say. But if I expect to have my right to express my views maintained: I'd jolly well better see to it that everyone else has that right, too.

Related posts: Background:
    Dan Georgakas, from Buhle, Buhle, and Georgakas, ed., ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN LEFT, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1992)
  • "Oppenheimer, (Julius) Robert"
  • "Robert Oppenheimer"
    • Professor Robert Oppenheimer was 'blacklisted,' but not very much
      • "...Oppenheimer found himself knocked down a few pegs but still able to continue on as a professor...."
    • I still am not convinced that R. Oppenheimer's treatment was entirely reasonable
  • "The 'Other Oppenheimer' and the World He Made Up"
    Berkeley Labs News Center (November 06, 2009)
    • Mostly about Frank Oppenheimer

1are the establishment. And, sadly, may not realize what happened.

Me? Thanks to a highly eclectic job history, I have fairly detailed knowledge of how several industries work, from the inside, and had time to "...follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought...." If I'd stayed in the academic establishment, I wouldn't have been obligated to conform to a degree that I could not tolerate.

So, why would an allegedly-sane man who doesn't conform easily, and has issues about authority, convert to - of all things - Catholicism?

That's a topic for another blog. These posts, in A Catholic Citizen in America, are a some in which I discuss how I came to have the views I do now: 2 America has changed during my lifetime. A lot.

For one thing, when I was a child, "Christian" in American English - in the area I lived in, anyway - meant "Protestant." Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox? Nope: They're not "Christian." Why? They're just not, that's all. That's changed, I think. Can't say I'm sorry, either.

Researching this post, I found numbers for religious affiliation in America in 1990 and 2001. The figures were headcounts for each group, plus a count for all adults counted. America's adult population went up quite a bit: from 175,440,000 or so in 1990 to 207,980,000 in 2001: so I converted the numbers to percentages of the adult population, to get an apples-to-apples comparison:

Total Christian86.35%76.69%
Protestant with no denomination supplied9.81%2.23%
Christian with no denomination supplied4.60%6.80%
(From data in Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990 and 2001, U.S. Census)

The fifties and sixties were even less like today's America. Me? I've always understood that only a few members of my extended family are 'real' Americans: having lived here for several millennia before Europeans found the place. The rest of us were "foreigners" not all that many generations ago.

So it's easy for me to accept the idea that some of my nieces are Filipino the way I'm a Scotsman, and that quite a few of my fellow-Minnesotans don't look Scandinavian. At all. (more: "Somali-American Jamal Bana: You are Missed" (July 13, 2009))

From the way some melanin-deficient 'regular Americans' still express themselves, I'd say that not everyone has gotten the memo that not all Americans are New England Yankees any more.

Of course, we never were.

3 I wouldn't call "the Christian God" "Allah," but then, I live in North America, and speak American English.

Around here "God" with a capital "G" is what the folks in my parish call the person who I am quite convinced made an agreement with Abraham, three or four millennia back. (Preface to the New American Bible - which you don't have to read if you don't want to) There wouldn't be "Christian" anything for over a thousand years after that - but never mind, I think I know know what Reuters means.

And, as if to make things more confusing, "god" with a lower-case "g" is synonymous with "deity" - a somewhat generic term. It's also an expletive.


Brigid said...

"As with so many other things, 'if a hundred million people really believe in a stupid idea, it's still a stupid idea.' In my opinion, "vox populi, vox dei" notwithstanding."

I'm not sure I understand this part.

Oh, and you repeated a word here:
"I'm a bit unfair with that heading: the the House on Un-American Activities Committee"

"I have fairly well-defined religious beliefs, myself" Didn't you kinda already say this? Or was the repetition intentional?

In your background section there's a bullet point without any text after it.

"If I'd stayed in the academic establishment, I wouldn't have been obligated to conform to a degree that I could not tolerate." Huh?

Just your friendly neighborhood proofreader. ^_^

Brian H. Gill said...

Brigid, thanks: First, I'm going through the post, looking for those points. I'll get back to the "huh?" things.

Brian H. Gill said...

While I'm working on those corrections - and a seriously tangled sentence - a thought:

All ye who write, beware!

Proofed should be thy work before thou doth release it: But proofread thy work not thyself, for in so doing have many erred, and known not that they erred.

It's a fact: proofreading your own work is not the best idea.

Brian H. Gill said...


About "fairly well-defined religious beliefs" - I do use repetition intentionally, from time to time - but that was, as I recall, a mistake. (I had something in mind, it didn't work, and I missed cleaning it up in proofing).

"As with so many other things, 'if a hundred million people really believe in a stupid idea, it's still a stupid idea.' In my opinion, "vox populi, vox dei" notwithstanding."

-That isn't some of my best writing, but I'm letting it stand. The first sentence should be fairly clear.

Although some things, like which side of a plate the fork goes, and whether a fork should be used at all, are determined by at least a consensus of people in a culture.

In contrast, some things are either true or not true. As an extreme example, if 250,000,000 of America's 307,000,000 or so people really, sincerely, honestly and earnestly believed that the sky was plaid: that wouldn't mean that the sky had a crisscross pattern.

The words, "vox populi, vox dei" means, roughly, voice of the people, voice of God. It's a grand-sounding Latin phrase that you'll see carved on some public buildings.

Fond as I am of democracy, and this republic with strong democratic traditions: I really don't think that the majority always acts as the mouthpiece of God. Or that God makes decisions based on what the polls say.

I hope that clears it up.

Brian H. Gill said...

The missing content in the Background section is there now - oops.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.