Malaysia’s ‘Allah’ ban

Use of word Allah

Malaysia’s Highest Court Rules Christans cannot use “Allah”

Malaysia’s highest court has rejected a challenge from the Catholic Church seeking to overturn a ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” to refer to God.

The recent ruling by Malaysia’s highest court to restrict non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ has triggered a wider national debate deepening polarization among the country’s various ethnic and religious communities.

Putrajaya [government]’s assertion that its ban on Christians using “Allah” is restricted to a Catholic paper will be put to test today when the High Court decides whether a Sarawakian Christian is allowed to possess religious compact discs containing the Arabic word for God. All eyes will be on today’s case to gauge if the Court of Appeal ruling on the subject — now the case authority on the issue, after the Federal Court declined to hear the appeal last week — will intrude into other aspects of Christian worship notwithstanding the government’s assurances.

Already, the fallout from the appellate court ruling that found “Allah” as not integral to the Christian faith has been seen, when the High Court ruled against Sabah’s Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) in its challenge against the seizure of three boxes of religious material bearing the term. But the silver lining for Christians and adherents of other non-Muslim faiths that use “Allah” is Chief Justice Tan Sri Arifin Zakaria’s decision to relegate the contentious portion of the judgment to an obiter—a passing remark, in legal jargon—rather than binding judgment. This critical move essentially permits other judges hearing similar cases in the future to disregard the Court of Appeal’s opinion on how vital “Allah” is to Christians.

Allah is One

Malays, the country’s dominant ethnic group, are constitutionally
ascribed as Muslims from birth, and their language borrows many
terms from Arabic, including ‘Allah’. Malaysia, along
with neighboring Brunei, are among the only countries in the
world to regulate the use of the word ‘Allah’ and other
terms deemed to be exclusive to Islam among its non-Muslim
citizens.

A court ruling in 2007 prohibited a Catholic newspaper, the
Herald, from using ‘Allah’ to describe the Christian god
in the local Malay-language edition of its newspaper. In its
attempts to appeal the judgment, the Church has argued that
Christians in the Muslim-majority nation have used
‘Allah’ in Malay-language bibles and daily prayers for
centuries.

Although the prohibition of the term only applied to the Herald
newspaper, religious authorities in the state of Selangor took
the unprecedented step of raiding the offices of the Bible Society of
Malaysia in January, confiscating 321 Malay-language bibles on
the basis that public disorder would ensue unless
‘Allah’ remains exclusive to Islam. The Selangor Islamic
Religious Council refuses to return the bibles, in defiance of
the country’s attorney general.

When a lower court ruled in favor of the Church to reverse the
government ban in 2009, widespread anger ensued that saw arson
attacks and vandalism at churches, temples, and other places of
worship. The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision
in 2013, which prompted the Catholic Church to bring their case
to the Federal Court, which rejected their challenge in a 4-3
judgment last week.

This controversy spawned by this issue has proven capable of
enflaming communal tensions, and stoking activism and fiery
protests from far-right Malay groups who view the term
‘Allah’ as an exclusive religious symbol, that despite
the term’s pre-Abrahamic origins, is rooted in the Koran. The
brand of Islam practiced by Malays – who make up some 64 percent
of the population – is deeply interwoven with the community’s
sense of ethnic identity, and an understanding of their
perspective is crucial to grasping the issue.

Muslim demonstrators display a banner outside Malaysia’s Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur (Reuters / Bazuki Muhammad)

‘Allah’ in context

As Muslims, Malays use the term ‘Allah’ to refer to
their god, which is perceived within a strict monotheistic
orientation. Malays are determined to defend their monopoly over
the term ‘Allah’ as understood in a monotheistic Islamic
sense because they believe the word cannot correspond with the
Christian notion of god due to the Christian belief in the
Trinity.

The term ‘Allah’ predates both Islam and Christianity,
and Arab Christians throughout the Middle East – and Christian
communities elsewhere, such as in Indonesia – have historically
used the term to refer to the Christian god without generating
friction between Christian and Muslim communities.

The territory of Malaysia is geographically divided between the
more populous western peninsular, which hosts the administrative
capital and the Sultanate, and the eastern states of Sabah and
Sarawak located across the South China Sea on the island of
Borneo, where the majority of Christians reside.

The indigenous Christian minority in Sabah and Sarawak have
indeed used ‘Allah’ in Malay-language bibles for
centuries, but the Malay community only began their fierce
opposition in recent times when non-indigenous Chinese and Indian
Christian communities in the western peninsular states began
adopting the word in sermons and bibles.

Christian and Muslim communities in Peninsular Malaysia lack the
cultural, ethnic, and social bonds that they maintain throughout
the Arab world and elsewhere, which is why local religious
misunderstandings have become significantly more enflamed by
comparison.

Most Christians on the peninsular worship in English, Tamil or
various Chinese dialects, and refer to God in those languages,
and so the insistence of those communities to also use the term
‘Allah’ has been met with hostility by the Malay
community, who are deeply suspicious that missionary-oriented
Christians would use the term to proselytize Muslims into
conversion, a crime in Malaysia.

The basis for their skepticism is rooted in the region’s history
of colonization by European powers. Dutch colonialists, who
controlled what is now modern-day Indonesia until the Second
World War, intended to spread their gospel to Southeast Asia,
making Malay the first language into which the bible was
translated outside of Europe and the Middle East.

In an attempt to proselytize Muslims into embracing Christianity,
Dutch translators deceptively incorporated terms borrowed from Arabic such as
‘Allah’ and incorporated them into the Malay bible,
rather than use the Malay word for god (tuhan). From the Malay
perspective, the insistence of non-Muslim communities to use
‘Allah’ is inexorably viewed as an affront by outsiders
to a concept that is central to Islam.

Muslim demonstrators chant slogans outside Malaysia's Court of Appeal in Putrajaya

Muslim demonstrators chant slogans outside Malaysia’s Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, March 5, 2014 (Reuters / Samsul Said)

When tail wags dog

Despite the sensitivity of the matter and the historical
grievances involved, this issue could have been resolved in a far
more amicable way, involving dialogue initiatives with the
country’s various community leaders and religious figureheads to
diffuse antagonisms. The government’s support for regulating the
term is widely perceived as an effort to assuage far-right Malay
groups, who regularly use incendiary language and promote an
adversarial interpretation of Islam.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who delivered the ruling coalition
its slimmest victory ever in last year’s general elections, has
put much emphasis on showcasing Malaysia’s brand of political
Islam as being moderate and capable of sustaining national
harmony since taking office in 2009.

Despite his administration’s inclusive message, the country’s
leadership is widely accused of allowing right-wing fringe
elements to dictate the Malay community’s agenda in an attempt to
consolidate voter support, as evidenced by the government’s
ambivalent stance toward groups that have regularly made
provocative statements.

The controversy around the seizure of Malay language bibles
earlier this year has set a troubling precedent. Following last
week’s ruling, the prime minister’s office released a statement that said the court decision would
only impact the Herald newspaper. Attorney-General Abdul Gani
Patai instructed that authorities in Selangor had erred in the
seizure of Malay-language bibles and maintained that the action taken by the state
religious council was unwarranted.

Selangor’s religious council, however, has refused to comply,
insisting it will continue to seize bibles
that contain the word ‘Allah’ in the state. The council
has warned that those found distributing the Malay-language
bibles would be arrested. That a state religious council can
flout directives from the country’s chief executive officer is
inherently problematic. Members of Perkasa, a rightwing Malay
rights group that has traditionally supported the ruling
coalition, have made disturbing statements in support of the
bible seizures.

Ruslan Kassim, a branch leader of Perkasa in the state of Negri
Sembilan,threatened to behead those who opposed the
bible seizure on the basis that such a position would betray
Islam. Zulkifli Noordin, former Perkasa deputy president,
recently accused those who opposed the
‘Allah’ ruling as being “lower than animals,”
and asked if those figures were prepared for another May 13, a
reference the country’s traumatic 1969 race riots.

The perspectives of Perkasa and groups like it are grounded in
undeniable historical injustices, that of a complex history of
being subjugated and by British colonialism, and later
economically subdued to large extent by Chinese and Indian
communities following the country’s independence in 1957.
However, the language used by the organization in the examples
given works to sow communal anxiety and is thoroughly
unconstructive.

Muslim demonstrators chant slogans outside Malaysia’s Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur March 5, 2014 (Reuters / Samsul Said)

Najib has taken much flak for his reluctance to chastise figures
that espouse inflammatory language and for his general absence of
input on polarizing national matters. His critics have chastised
him for recent claims that human rights and secularism were being
used to spread deviant thinking among Muslims, which the prime
minister called “the most dangerous threat to the
Islamic faith.”

When speaking to members of his party last week, Najib called on
his compatriots to emulate the bravery shown by the Islamic
State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) during its brutal advance across
areas of northwestern Iraq, sparking a flurry of criticism on
social media.

These statements represent a significant departure from previous
remarks at venues such as the UN General Assembly, where Najib
used his address last year to deplore Islamic
extremism and sectarianism, which he then posited as the greatest
threat to Muslims. A spokesperson for the Malaysian government
later issued a statement saying that PM’s remarks in no way
indicate support for ISIS.

Najib’s statement, which can be perceived as a reluctant
glorification of ISIS, is particularly puzzling since Malaysia is
actively attempting to prevent a growing amount of its citizens
from taking up arms in the Syrian civil war on the side of rebel
militias. These comments should be seen in the context of the
government attempting to accommodate fringe groups that have
become increasingly successful at influencing the
state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam.

In the prevailing social milieu of the country, there must be
greater political will on the part of the government to take
reconciliatory measures to diffuse communal and religious
anxieties. If the authorities are concerned that Muslims would
become confused if other non-Muslims use the word
‘Allah,’ then the government should make efforts to
educate the public about the history of the word and its usage
elsewhere to promote a correct understanding of the issue.

In light of recent developments, many who once placed great hope
in Najib to deliver impactful social reforms in line with his
stance of moderation and tolerance now feel like his government
has lost the plot.

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