COMMENT Amid the cacophony that followed hard upon Perkasa chief Ibrahim Ali's call to Muslims to burn Bibles that use the ‘Allah' term for God, one was hard put to find a reaction and a reminder more bracing than what emerged from the Penang state minister for religion.

NONEAbdul Malik Abul Kassim, the PKR state assemblyperson who has been holding the sensitive religious portfolio in the DAP-led Pakatan Rakyat state government since 2008, was quoted earlier this week as saying:

"We are told not to kick, throw or burn any holy book. Those who want to do these acts are discrediting Islam in the eyes of the world."

Nothing very profound about this reminder by a politician of quietly effective and often under appreciated capability, but still, putting it alongside the screeching of other respondents to the controversy, Malik's counsel is one of irenic content and bracing effect.

It puts you in mind of some lines from ‘If', Rudyard Kipling's famous poem: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ..."

Introspection is not exactly a strong suit of believers, which makes Malik Kassim's impulse to look within his religion before declaiming on what would be appropriate or unbecoming conduct commendable indeed.

To be sure, Malik's was not uncommon or exceptional deportment on the controversial topic of the use of ‘Allah' in Malay-language bibles.

Generally, the PKR national leadership cohort have held to the middle octaves in the cacophony that arose after Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng in his Christmas Day message called on the federal government to allow the use of the term ‘Allah' in Malay-language bibles in Malaysian Borneo.

They pushed for a revisit of the Pakatan consensus on the issue, enunciated in January 2010, which resolved that the term was not exclusive to Muslims.

NONEThis was a courageous position to take in the teeth of arson attacks on churches and incidents of desecration of mosques that occurred in the month of January in 2010, following a High Court decision that allowed the Catholic Church's weekly publication, Herald, to use the term in its Bahasa Malaysia edition.

PKR adviser and Pakatan supremo Anwar Ibrahim hosted a series of learned discussions on the issue before steering the opposition coalition to a consensus on the issue.

This decision dovetailed nicely with the reigning consensus in Arab and other Muslim-majority countries where the term is not regarded as exclusive to the Islamic religion.

Consensus breaks down


However, this consensus broke down last month in the wake of Lim's call for ‘Allah' to be allowed in Malay-language bibles that Christians use as their scriptural texts in Sabah and Sarawak.

Pakatan component, PAS, publicly demurred with Lim and this led to a fraying of the consensus before an uneasy armistice prevailed which saw PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang declaring, in an agreement worked out under Pakatan's auspices that, to wit, the term was not exclusive to Muslims but that non-Muslims must be careful not to abuse its usage.

The theologians in his party, however, disagreed: the PAS syura council, the highest policy-making body in the party, deemed the term permissible for use by non-Muslims only when employed in reference to a 'Supreme Being'.

Subtle nuances tend to be squashed in the heat of partisan volleys. And when the philistines wade in, as Ibrahim Ali of Malay right-wing group Perkasa did, the tensions were inevitably heightened.

But through it all, there was no wavering on the part of corporate Pakatan. The coalition reiterated the consensus they reached three years ago while taking note of the seeming dissent voiced by PAS' theologians.

Agreeing to disagree without schismatic tendencies has become an accepted rule of engagement within the coalition.

NONEIt would have helped if Anwar had come out a little sooner with his condemnation of Ibrahim's bible-burning threat.

However, his reiteration of an assurance he gave three years ago when the ‘Allah' issue first flared in the national arena, was noteworthy: he said Pakatan would protect the sanctity of all religions in this country.

That reiteration and Malik Kassim's emphasis on what he said was requisite behaviour of Muslims towards the sacred books of other believers are reflections of a way of looking at the diversity of religious beliefs that conduces to peaceful resolution of conflict rather than its heightening.

TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for close on four decades. He likes the occupation because it puts him in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them.