Malaysia Calling: Why the letter "t" is a culprit out to diminish Islam
Just when you thought you had heard all bizarre conspiracy theories against
Islam, here comes one that takes the cake. Apparently the letter "t" of the
English language is out to diminish our religion.
In today's edition of the Kuala Lumpur daily, New Straits Times, Malaysian
journalists Abdul Razak Ahmad, Ridzal A. Latiff, and Sulaiman Jaafar write
about the movement 'not to cross the letter t.'
Read and reflect.
More about Islam written in English
By Abdul Razak Ahmad; Ridzal A. Latiff; Sulaiman Jaafar
New Straits Times, Kuala lumpur
IN modern Malaysia, mind your P's and Q's, dot your i's, but stay away from
crossing your t's. While nobody objects to the first two - politeness and
literacy being the mark of a developed nation - some are wary of the letter
"t" which they see as representing the crucifix.
Because of this, religious teachers at one Petaling Jaya school instructed
students not to cross their "t's". In exceptional circumstances, they were
to slant the bar so that the letter would not look like a cross.
As it turns out, "t" is not the only culprit out to diminish Islam.
In Kedah earlier this year, a teacher reportedly told a seminar that
teaching English is haram. Last year, Universiti Teknologi Mara teachers
complained that some students resisted learning the language for the same
Last week, NST columnist Farish A. Noor wrote about the furore that erupted
in the 1960s when Education Minister Mohamed Khir Johari called for the move
from Jawi to the Roman script in schools, universities and government
departments. The Islamist camp saw his policy as a betrayal of Malay culture
and Islam. Yet today, Utusan Melayu which is in Jawi, has a daily
circulation of less than 15,000 whereas Utusan Malaysia has a daily
circulation of 250,000.
Since the 1970s, religious revivalism has given rise to overzealous
defenders of the religion who are especially sensitive to "signs" that the
religion is under threat. Professor Ibrahim Bajunid, dean of the Faculty of
Humanities and Social Sciences at Universiti Tun Abdul Razak, says this kind
of xenophobia inflicts many people in varying degrees and causes them to see
symbols, icons and messages which they think will destroy their religion.
For example, some years back local newspapers reported that the arrangement
of neon lights at a certain night market emitted anti-Islamic messages.
"It's got to do with the peculiar obsession with rituals and so-called
religious purity, partly caused by the fear of being led astray," says
Professor Rahman Embong, senior fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and
International Studies (Ikmas) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
"This is the fallout from the dakwah movement of the 1970s.
"I suspect that in remote rural areas the problem is not so much that
English is haram, but that education as a whole is difficult. So out of
despair or frustration English becomes unimportant and eventually
In rural Sarawak, he says, getting to school is so problematic that for
many, education is not worth the trouble. Similarly, if English is seen as
irrelevant in some pondok schools up north, it eventually becomes a
In poorly-funded independent religious schools, teachers are untrained in
anything except basic religious knowledge.
"When a student asks to be taught English, the teacher, who does not have a
good command of the language, would probably prefer to tell the student that
English is haram," says Fadzil Hanafi, State executive councillor for
religious affairs in Kedah.
"Such a mindset stems from the teachers' own insecurities."
There are also other detractors. According to some intellectuals, anti-
neocolonialists and Malay ultra-nationalists may employ religion to prevent
the informed, polished and widespread use of the English language.
One of the most heated debates in the local literary scene centres on the
fact that those who write in English are not included in the body called
To many, speaking and writing in good English smacks of an arrogance akin to
that of the colonial masters. What is hardly noticed is that those who
vehemently oppose English are rarely proficient in it themselves. At the
official frontline, however, the importance of English is acknowledged.
There were some ulama in Kelantan who disapproved of English, to the extent
of branding it haram, says Kelantan deputy mufti Datuk Mohamad Shukri
Mohamad. However, he said, it happened a long time ago when the country was
under British colonial rule.
"There was quite a strong resistance then by some ulama because they were
afraid that Malays who studied the language will become traitors and
conspire with the colonialists," he said.
But many others including Kelantan's well-known ulama Tok Kenali chose to
ignore them, and continue to study and use the language despite the
Mohamad Shukri, a graduate in Syariah and Islamic Law from Al-Azhar
University, said Tok Kenali was also instrumental in pushing for an English
stream to be introduced in schools under the Kelantan Islamic Council in
The deputy mufti said Tok Kenali and those who shared his opinion held
steadfast to a hadith by the Prophet:
"Those who learn the language of a race are free from their tricks and
Mohamad Shukri himself subscribes to an English newspaper to encourage his
children's use of the language. "I didn't have the opportunity to really
learn the language before but I want my children to have the advantage of
Many of the independent religious schools referred to by Fadzil are linked
to Pas, among them the "Pasti" kindergartens which the party operates and
funds. Its Youth chief Mahfuz Omar says that any allegation that the party
preaches a narrow worldview among its followers, which includes the
forbidding of English, is false.
Mahfuz maintains that the party adopts a modernist view towards the
acquisition of worldly knowledge, a claim that many will dispute in the
heady political battles raging between Pas and Umno, the two main political
parties of the Malays.
A retired headmaster and education officer Abdul Rahman Rahim says that
there wasn't a problem of English being considered haram when he was a
student in the 1950s.
But the problem now could be that some Malays feel the flood of English
bombarding them in the media is threatening their identity.
"Some equate English with Western culture," he says.
Abdul Rahman says that when people see shows like Baywatch they become
suspicious of Western culture as a whole, the English language included. But
hostility towards the language is only one tangible arm of a far bigger
phenomenon. "All this is an attempt to regulate the thoughts and language
used by the community," says Ibrahim.
"Some years ago, non-Muslims were prevented from saying assalamualaikum, but
there is nothing Islamic or un-Islamic about this. In the Middle-East,
non-Muslim Arabs use the same salutation. In the same way, Muslims who say
selamat pagi instead of assalamu-alaikum were branded kafir.
"The open house is actually not a Muslim practice, and the fact that so many
are doing it has made some Muslims unhappy. They may not discourage it
openly, but will indirectly try to prevent interaction between Muslims and
The same individuals would probably be unhappy that at some Malay weddings
these days, the prayers are uttered in three languages: Arabic, Bahasa
Malaysia and English.
Some even feel that it is contrary to the religion to attend the funerals of
non-Muslims and to greet them with the compliments of the season.
"The practice of Islam here is so literal and legalistic. There is no love,
no empathy, which is unfortunate," says Ibrahim.
"The only way to combat the growing attempts to police religious practices
is to acquire more knowledge than they. When you look at the world through
different languages, you widen your mental horizon."
"My acquisition of the English language allows me to step out of the Malay
`box' and to look at my community through a different language. This has
made me appreciate my roots much, much more.
"If English is indeed haram - how would you explain the increasing use of
the language to spread the word? There is now more on Islam written in
English than in Malay, because of the Western research tradition."
If the situation goes unchecked, the only losers will be Malaysians. And as
the world flourishes, we will spend our future in the dark, in the company
of imagined demons.