Using the word Allah can be hazardous to your health. Catholic churches in Malaysia are being firebombed after a court ruling in that country permitted the use of the word Allah as a generic term for God. Some adherents of the religion of peace are pushing back hard against any notion of a vanilla Allah.
The matter has been adjudicated in this country as well. Judge David F. Hamilton, President Obama's first judicial nominee, faced some drama last year during his confirmation for the federal appeals court because of a controversial decision he wrote in 2005 addressing the legally acceptable name of God.
In Hinrichs v. Bosma, Hamilton, as a U.S. district judge, instructed Indiana legislators to "refrain from using Christ's name or title or any other denominational appeal" during invocations and instead use "nonsectarian" names for God. In a post-judgment order, Judge Hamilton stated that Allah was among the acceptable nonsectarian terms, but a nondenominational invocation of Jesus was not. So, by Judge Hamilton's confused logic, it is acceptable to say "Thank Allah it's Friday," and coins could reasonably bear the slogan "In Allah We Trust," but lawmakers pondering important policy choices could not ask "What would Jesus do?" because the First Amendment forbids it.
Judge Hamilton is a squishy liberal judicial activist with a left-wing agenda - in other words, a perfect Obama court appointment. But his knowledge of Allah leaves a lot to be desired. The generic Arabic word for small-g god is al-ilah. There is no small-a Allah. To Muslims, the word Allah is the proper name of the God of Abraham. It is as sectarian for them as Jesus is for Christians.
Judge Hamilton is safely ensconced for life on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, so the question of his suitability for the bench is moot, but the reality check going on in Southeast Asia is instructive. Perhaps Judge Hamilton should have asked Malaysian Muslims if Allah is a generic term. The Muslim-majority country recently began enforcing a law dating back to the 1980s that bans the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims. The government was concerned that Christians, who make up about 9 percent of the population, would try to make their faith more palatable to potential converts by using language familiar to them.
Allah had been used as a generic term for God in the Malay language for more than 400 years, and after the government cracked down on a Catholic newspaper for using the term, the church sued. On Dec. 31, Malaysia's high court overturned the law and freed Allah for use by anyone who wanted to utter the word. Since then, at least eight Christian churches have been firebombed, and others have been desecrated. The radicals are making their opinion known about what they see as trademark infringement by the country's Christian minority.
The situation in Malaysia underscores the need for clearer thinking about religion in our own country. Judge Hamilton's sloppy scholarship that made Allah a nonsectarian term fits neatly into the liberal worldview that seeks to homogenize faith rather than accept religious diversity. It's clearly not up to an American district judge to determine what the word Allah means or whether it is an acceptable substitute to refer to a generic god. Judges should understand that First Amendment injunctions against establishment of religion could as well apply to their own decisions when they try to define which names of deities are sectarian and which are not.
Because we live in America, the Land of the Free, we can - at least for now - say, "Thank Allah it's Friday." But it's probably a pretty sectarian bunch who would want to do so.