The same can be said of Islam and some Muslims.
The biggest threats to Islam are not from non-Muslims. The threats come from within the community.
Terrorists who claim that Islam justifies and even mandates atrocious violence come to mind immediately, of course. Their actions reinforce prejudices against the religion, giving Islam a reputation for violence.
But it is not only the perpetrators of violence who undermine the image of Islam — even, I assume and even hope, among many Muslims.
There are people who claim to speak on behalf of Islam who make ridiculous statements and perform horrific acts, which can only make non-Muslims wonder if one must be brain dead to be a Muslim. Of course, these individuals do not represent all Muslims.
(In fairness, Catholics like those who get themselves nailed to crosses in the Philippines each Holy Week, or evangelicals in America who handle rattlesnakes, raise the same sorts of questions about Christians. Lunacy in the name of religion is not a Muslim monopoly.)
A couple of years ago, an Egyptian Muslim group declared that, "Eating tomatoes is forbidden because they are Christian." The declaration was accompanied by a photo that showed that when a tomato is cut in half horizontally its core resembles a cross.
Eventually, ridicule of the commandment resulted in the group’s issuing a revision that allowed the eating of tomatoes so long as they were not cut a particular way.
Now, a majority-Muslim nation is joining the parade of the brainless who seem intent on making Islam a laughingstock in the world.
The Malaysian justice system has upheld a ban on a Catholic newspaper’s use of the word "Allah" in its Bahasa-language texts to refer to God. This is in spite of the fact that such use by Christians in Arabic-speaking lands predates the birth of Mohammed. Much of the religious vocabulary of Bahasa, the Malay language, comes from Arabic. In fact, the word is ultimately of pagan origin, as is the English word "god".
Those disturbed by the ban on the centuries-old use of a single word in a single publication see it as a first step toward increased suppression of religious and ethnic minorities in Malaysia. They are probably right. In that case, the country will be seen as not simply ridiculous, but malevolent.
Are the Malaysian government agencies lately promoting tourism to that country ready to see that happen? Are most Malaysian Muslims happy to see yet one more event that increases perceptions of their religion and their country as not only tritely ridiculous, but potentially dangerous?
Christians and other minorities in Malaysia legitimately fear that proscribing the use of “Allah” in the Catholic newsweekly Herald will simply be the beginning of more persecution to come. But, in the meantime, might this ban open new possibilities for Malaysian Catholics to broaden and deepen their relationship with God?
Of course, persecution always provides that opportunity. But, on a less dramatic level, having to search for new vocabulary can be a blessing.
A priest in Cambodia who was engaged in translating Scripture, liturgy, the catechism and other texts into Khmer, the local language, said there is a value in not using common words.
The problem with commonly used words is that people think they know what they mean. And that meaning might not capture the richness of new thoughts. They have become stale and carry no more taste. They may even carry connotations that go against what we really hope to say.
A difficult or uncommon word can stop us and make us think: "I’m not sure what that word means. What might it mean?" Thought begins and insight can happen.
This can be especially true when we begin to think that a word can encompass the reality of God. In fact, the words we use can carry "linguistic DNA" that can infect that relationship.
For example, the English word "god" is of pagan Germanic origin. The Latin "deus," related to the Greek Zeus via "theos," does not speak of the one true God who is love. Both the Germanic and Mediterranean words originally denoted a domineering warrior, though mythology does present Zeus as a rather promiscuous lover in a non-Christian sense of the word.
The search for an alternative that Malaysian fanatics are imposing on the Herald may be a gift in disguise.
My personal recommendation is that the newspaper follow Jewish custom and simply say the Bahasa equivalent of "The Name," ha-shem in Hebrew. That might even be worth considering for English use, a way of opening up new vistas for reflection and prayer.