People tend to perceive debates over translation as dry, scholarly affairs, but sometimes, disagreements about how to translate a word can aggravate existing tensions between groups, even escalating violence. This was especially evident in the country of Malaysia last week, where a dispute about how to translate the word “God” has sparked protests and led to the firebombing of three Christian churches.
According to the New York Times, the problems started when a Malaysian court ruled that Roman Catholics could use the word “Allah” in a Malay-language newspaper as a translation for “God.” Allah is, in fact, a direct translation of the word “God” into Arabic-according to Wikipedia, it is the standard Arabic word for God and is commonly used by both Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.
However, in Malaysia, some Muslims believe that the word “Allah” should be exclusive to Muslims. The New York Times quotes a protestor as saying :
“Allah is only for us. The Christians can use any word; we don’t care, but please don’t use the word Allah.”
The government agrees, and has appealed the court ruling allowing Roman Catholics to use it. The New York Times says that:
“Muslims [in Malaysia] have argued that the use of the word by other religions could confuse believers and tempt them to convert from Islam.”
So far, the protests have been small, with only a few hundred people in each gathering. Nobody has been hurt in the fire bombings, and the churches involved have sustained only minor damage. Still, tolerance is necessary for any two groups to live next to each other in peace. Hopefully, whatever the final court ruling turns out to be, the situation in Malaysia calms down soon.