I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about the role that the western media has in breaking down or furthering the misunderstandings and stereotypes held by the “East” and the “West.” It goes without saying that sites like MEMRI strengthen the Orientalist view of Arabs, but I’ve noticed another, perhaps smaller, thing in English language reporting on the Arab world. Every time there’s a suicide bombing or some sort of an anti-American rally being reported on, the press seems to translate most everything, with the glaring exception of the word Allah (oftentimes in the phrase Allahu Akbar).
It seems like an innocuous omission on the surface, but I’m convinced that it has fairly sizeable consequences. I imagine the average evangelical Christian from Wisconsin hearing the word Allah and immediately conjuring up pictures of bearded and Turban-clad terrorists wielding Kalashnikovs or improvised explosive devices. “Their god is not my God,” the Midwesterner thinks to himself. However, anyone who knows even a smidgen of Arabic knows that Arabophone Jews, Muslims and Christians all use the name Allah. Furthermore, on a theological level, we know that each of these faiths submits to the same God of Abraham: the details may differ, but in the end, they’re all praying to the same god.
It seems, however, that this will to linguistically sever the Muslim and Christian god isn’t only limited to Westerners or Christians. In this bizarre article the BBC reports that Malaysian Christians are being forbidden to use the word “Allah,” despite the fact that in the Malay language, as in Arabic, Allah means God (or the God):
A church and Christian newspaper in Malaysia are suing the government after it decreed that the word “Allah” can only be used by Muslims.
In the Malay language “Allah” is used to mean any god, and Christians say they have used the term for centuries.
Opponents of the ban say it is unconstitutional and unreasonable.
The Sabah Evangelical Church of Borneo has also taken legal action after a government ministry moved to ban the import of religious children’s books containing the word.
In a statement given to Reuters news agency, the church said the translation of the bible in which the word Allah appears has been used by Christians since the earliest days of the church.
There has been no official government comment but parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said the decision to ban the word for non-Muslims on security grounds was “unlawful”.
“The term ‘Allah’ was used to refer to God by Arabic-speaking Christians before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed,” he said.
This, of course, is ridiculous, and I wonder what Malay word the Malaysian government proposes Christians use instead of Allah.