Thursday, November 05, 2009

Who Owns the Name of God? The Malaysian Government Knows!

Who Owns the Name of God? One would at first suspect that the answer is that the Divine Presence owns its own name, or at least all of the variations through which humans attempt to provide a means of communicating about the Divine Presence (or speaking of it with reference to the religious traditions of others). But over the course of the last several centuries, humans have sought to categorize and narrow the attribution of the Divine name so that different variations correspond to the same Presence in different religious traditions. This is particularly odd when the Name of God itself is not a name so much as a descriptor. In a sense, these efforts could be considered pagan, in the sense that even among those who purport to believe in a single Diety are also happy to insist that this Singularity has many aspects, each requiring a different name. On the other hand, it is as likely that efforts of religious communities to "possess" a particular name of God is also an act of chauvinism--at its most crass; it serves as a mere (but nonetheless important) marketing ploy directed to the masses, and to that extent ought to be deplored.

And now, it appears, the state has become involved in issues of ownership rights over the name of God.

The Malaysian government has refused to release 10,000 Bibles which it seized because they contained the word Allah to refer to God. The government, which is dominated by Muslim Malays, claims that the word Allah is Islamic and that its use in Bibles could upset Muslims. The Roman Catholic Church is challenging the ban in court.
Robert Pigott, Malaysia Withholds 'Allah' Bibles, BBC News Online, Nov. 4, 2009. The issue is framed in legal terms, as one involving rights of minorities. "The government has impounded Bibles before, intercepting 5,000 in March as they were imported from Indonesia. . . . The Christian Federation of Malaysia said the religious freedom guaranteed by the Malaysian constitution was meaningless if people were denied Bibles which used their own language. " Id. It is also framed in property terms, as one involving rights to a name, like one can assert rights in a trademark. "Church officials say that although the word Allah originated in Arabic, Malays have used it for centuries to refer generally to God, and Arabic-speaking Christians used it before Islam was founded. " Id.

But, of course, the real issue is one of power and control. Christians long taunted Jews (and some persist to this day) by insisting that there is a necessary substantive distinction between the one "true" and "only" God--a Christian God who is solely worthy of the referent "God" and the false or past notions of Divine Presence whose name was derived from translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic contractions of the Divine Referent in the Old Testament. Consider something as innocuous today as the General Audience (Nuptial Meaning of the Body) Jan. 9, 1980 ("Rereading and analyzing the second narrative of creation, the Yahwist text, we must ask ourselves if the first "man" ('adam), in his original solitude, really "lived" the world as a gift. . . . , Though man was in this situation of original happiness, the Creator himself (God-Yahweh) and then also "man," pointed out that man was alone - instead of stressing the aspect of the world as a subjectively beatifying gift created for man (cf. the first narrative and in particular Gn 26:29)."). Likewise, for some, Allah was a means of distinguishing a false Divine Referent, that of the Muslims, from the true belief whose foundation could only be referred to as "God". Christians, of course, were not the only one who engaged in this sort of linguistic power play. But its symbolic value was powerful. It reduced and distinguished notions of the Divine between religions so that, by extension, each faith could be assured that its own Divine Referent was the only true one, and the purported belief in "God" by others, especially by non-believers, could be distinguished. This is brought out in its sublime subtlety in the Papal Encyclical Nostra Aetate (Paul VI, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Oct. 28, 1965) (for example, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself." Id., Para. 2). There is a fine here between beliefs that define a religious community and the appropriate of the descriptors they might share in common with others, but which might, if used in common, suggest an equivalence that is otherwise discouraged as communal-faith destroying.

The fight between Christians and Muslims, then, can be understood as rights not merely to control a Divine Referent, but as as a battle for control over the "accepted" name of that Referent. If Christians, and Jews, began to refer to the Divine Presence by reference to the word "Allah", then Muslims would appear to lose a monopoly of control over a word that powerfully seeks to legitimate their claim of possession to the only true Referent of the Di¡vine and therefore the only true path to a relationship with that Presence. For the Church in Southeast Asia, this is not a new battle. For example, John Paul II used the term in his apostolic blessing on pilgrims from Indonesia in 1995. Address of His Holiness John Paul II to a Group of Pilgrims from Indonesia, July 7, 1995 ("Semoga Allah memberkati Indonesia dengan damaiNya. Semoga Allah memberkati anda sekalian. (May God bless Indonesia with his peace. May God bless you all)." Id.)

The issue, then, though framed in terms of law and rights, is in fact, about the power of religious institutions--and their faith communities, to assert a critical power over language and meaning. To control language and meaning is to control the levers of authentic relations with God. It appears that the Evangelist John might have understood the issues best of all 2000 or so years ago when he wrote:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." John 1:1-2.
The irony here, and the full understanding of these words by the Muslim community, and its translation into the language of law and rights by the state and the Christian community, bespeaks of the glory of the perverse which appears to difficult to resist. Who owns the name of God, or the descriptor, God? It may depend on which community has the power to appropriate the term and limit its use to a particular faith community, and by implication, denying both the use of the term and claims for legitimate connection to the Divine Referent.

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