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‘Not containing trauma and memory in the name of Allah’

Not containing trauma and memory in the name of Allah’

Sharon A Bong (Malaysia)


‘There is a difference between invisible mending – fixing something to look as if it has never been torn – and trying to keep a wound invisible and thereby unavailable for mending’ (Spelman, 2007: 131). This quotation resonates strongly with the ways in which trauma, memory and ethnic-religious pluralism are largely mismanaged by the government of Malaysia. This is made visible in what has come to be termed as the Allah controversy; the backlash to the Catholic Church’s insistence on its constitutional right to freedom of religious expression as an ethnic-religious minority in Malaysia.

The wounding effects of such mismanagement of ethnic-religious pluralism is made apparent when one calls to mind that the ‘Greek trauma, or “wound”’, originally refers to ‘an injury inflicted on a body’, as noted by Cathy Caruth, author of Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996, p.3). In returning to the opening quote, ‘trying to keep a wound invisible and thereby unavailable for mending’ resonates with the state rhetoric and practice of ‘1Malaysia’ – conceived by the present Prime Minister, Najib Razak – that glosses over this fracturing of ethnic and religious ties in foregrounding the maintenance or restoration of national harmony, the common good and peace at all costs. As such, fractured ethnic-religious ties based in inequalities and inequities among ethnic and religious groups – often state-sponsored – become an open wound that does not need to be mended as it is thus made invisible. 

In terms of ’invisible mending – fixing something to look as if it has never been torn’, this finds expression in the containment of trauma and memory that surrounds the Allah controversy. The Catholic Church continues to legally contest a 1986 government ban on non-Muslims’ use of words such as ‘Allah’, largely fuelled by fear of proselytisation of Muslims by non-Muslims. It does so, on grounds of its constitutional right to religious freedom, i.e. to use this in Herald, its weekly bulletin that has a pullout in the national language (where Allah refers to God), the first language for some 1.5 million Christians. The backlash by Malay supremacists (the ethnic majority) and religious fundamentalists has resulted in the 2010 desecration of places of worship (e.g. church arsons), the 2014 raid of the Bible Society of Malaysia’s premises and seizure of over 300 Bibles in the national language, streets protests and the burning of an effigy of Herald’s editor for ‘seditious’ remarks. The quick fix solutions to the Allah controversy include compensation for damages caused from church arsons, a 2011 10-point Cabinet decision that whilst is well-intended, runs counter to state provisions governing the propagation of faith among Muslims by non-Muslims. Reconciliatory initiatives also include the alacrity of most Christians to forgive which as some social commentators have critiqued, is a strategy of survival by an ethnic-religious minority.

As such, The Catholic Church’s insistence on making this wound visible is a strategy of resistance. And it potentially leads to true healing and transformation of a nation that needs to recognise how deeply it is divided by ethnicity and religion and other differences that matter.


Caruth, Cathy (1996) Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. (2007) ‘Managing ignorance’, in Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (eds), Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 119–31.