December 22, 2007

A New Approach to Censorship

The government of Malaysia has announced what to my knowledge is a hitherto unknown form of censorship: they have prohibited the use of certain words with non-Muslim referents. The Associated Press reports that the government has informed the The Herald, a Roman Catholic newspaper, that its license to publish will not be renewed if it continues to use the word Allah in reference to God.

The Internal Security Ministry is of the view that the word Allah refers specifically to the Muslim god and may not appropriately be used in reference to the Catholic god. In addition to allah, the Malaysian government has prohibited the use of three other words by non-Muslims: solat "prayer", Kaabah "the shrine in Mecca", and baitulah "the house of god". Although the report is not entirely clear on this point, I think that what is prohibited is the application of these words to entities distinct from those to which they are applied by Muslims rather than, strictly speaking, their use by non-Muslims. That is, it is presumably acceptable for a Catholic to say that Muslims worship Allah.

As far as I know, such restrictions on the use of particular words are novel. Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews use the word Allah as their word for God. Muslim countries frequently discriminate against non-Muslims, but so far as I know, no other restricts their choice of religious terms.

The basis for this policy is also curious. If one believes in the existence of multiple deities, it make sense to distinguish one from the other. If your favorite deity is Thoth and mine is Isis, it makes sense to keep their names distinct to avoid confusion between the two. But if, as Muslims believe, you believe that there is only one god, you can believe that other people have false ideas as to what God is like and what she wants but you cannot reasonably believe that the god that someone else worships is different, for that would imply the existence of two gods. I suspect that the Internal Security Ministry has not thought this out very carefully.

Posted by Bill Poser at December 22, 2007 03:13 AM