The Catholic Church’s long battle to use the word “Allah” in the newsweekly Herald came to an end Wednesday after the dismissal of its review application.
A five-man bench led by Tan Sri Abdull Hamid Embong unanimously upheld that here had been no procedural unfairness in the Federal Court’s earlier decision not to grant leave. He added that the threshold for the review had not been met.
A seven-member panel of federal court judges on June 23, 2014, dismissed the church’s application for leave to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision to ban the Herald from using the Arabic word for “God” in its Bahasa language content.
Chief Justice Tun Arifin Zakaria was among the four on the panel who dismissed the church’s application, in a 4-3 “skin of our teeth” judgment, as the church’s lawyers have called it, that saw three other judges dissenting.
With no more legal avenues to pursue for the right to use the word “Allah” in the Herald, the publication’s editor Rev Father Lawrence Andrew expressed disappointment on Wednesday that the Federal Court’s dismissal of the appeal would further undermine the rights of minorities.
Rev Andrew said it was an important constitutional case on the right to profess one’s faith and said he hoped that the rights of minorities, including the poor and the underprivileged, would not be trampled upon.
When asked about the opposing argument by the lawyer of a Muslim religious group today that allowing the review would “open up old wounds and cause public unrest”, Rev Andrew said, he did not understand how trouble could arise as “Allah” had been used for so long by Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians.
“Malay has been the language in the church in Malaya for centuries and I have shown evidence [that Bahasa Malaysia] was already a language of worship for hundreds of years in devotional booklets,” he said. “And during this period, there was no trouble whatsoever, so I don’t see an possibility of evoking trouble.”
The word “Allah” is widely used by the Christians in Sabah and Sarawak and the church has argued that the ban of its use in the Herald is a violation of freedom of religion and expression.
Despite appearing to be at the end of the road, the church’s lead counsel Cyrus Das said the issue was not necessarily over.
It could be raised through other cases, Das said, adding that the matter of constitutional rights of minorities could still be taken up.
The merits of the church’s case in the dispute over using “Allah” needed to be raised in the courts in other cases on the same topic, especially on the home minister’s powers to ban words and the scope of prohibitions.
“There are other constitutional issue[s] that have not been addressed, and this can be taken up in other cases,” said Das outside the courtroom.
Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) politician Gan Peng Sieu, who is also a lawyer and was holding a watching brief on the case for the party, described the Federal Court’s decision today as a great injustice.
He said it was unfortunate that the status quo on the “Allah” issue remained following the dismissal.
“The Federal Court is skirting away from answering constitutional issues which are left hanging.”
“The people were expecting the Federal Court to do more as this is beyond politics, the duty of the Federal Court is to preserve and defend the Federal Constitution and the current state of the ‘Allah’ issue will not do any good for the country,” said Gan, whose MCA party is a component member of the ruling Barisan Nasional government.
Gan also said that laymen and religious groups would infer that the matter had ended with today’s decision, when that was not the case.
Datuk Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, president of the Muslim Lawyers Association, appeared to agree, saying that the decision was only confined to the Herald.
It simply meant that the church could not use the word “Allah” in the publication.
“Muslims are unhappy because the word ‘Allah’ was used to refer to a non-Muslim God.
“But is not a blanket ruling that non-Muslims cannot use the word,” he added.
Malaysia’s federal constitution enshrines Islam as the religion of the federation while giving adherents of other faiths the freedom to practice their religions as long as it does not involve proselytization of Muslims.
Key among the issues is the constitutionality of state enactments that prohibit the use of between 18 and 25 Arabic words, one of which is “Allah”. Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution gives the states, including the Federal Territories, power to enact such restrictions. Ten states in Malaysia have since 1988 passed the enactments.
Malaysia’s battle over the use of the word “Allah” has attracted international attention, as well as ridicule, including from Islamic scholars abroad who hold that “Allah” is a generic name for God and is open to use by both Muslims and non-Muslims, as use of the word predates Islam.