MALAYSIA: Court bans non-Muslims from using the word “Allah”

On 14 October an appeals court in Malaysia ruled that non-Muslims must not use the word “Allah” to refer to God.

The appeals court ruling by three Muslim judges overturned a ruling of 31 December 2009 allowing The Herald, a Malay-language Roman Catholic weekly newspaper, to use the name “Allah” to refer to the Christian God. “The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity,” said Chief Judge Apandi Mohamed Ali. “The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community.” Outside the court, a hundred Muslim activists waved placards and chanted slogans maintaining that only Muslims should use the name.

The word “Allah”, which like other words in the Malay language is borrowed from Arabic, predates Islam and is the common word for God in Malay-language Bibles. Christians in Malaysia point out that if the ruling is enforced, their Bibles will have to be discarded. They say that they have used the name “Allah” to define the Christian God for decades and that the new provisions violate their freedoms of speech and religion. When a 400-year-old Latin-Malay dictionary was republished recently, it showed that the word “Allah” was used from the start to name the Biblical God in the local language.

Many Christians in Malaysia expected the ruling, believing it would come as a bid by the coalition government’s main party, the United Malays National Organisation, to meet the demands of fundamentalists and secure Islamic votes. Christians see Islamist opposition to their use of the word as rooted in fear that its use might tempt Muslims to convert to Christianity, and they say they will continue to use the word “Allah” in spite of the ruling.

Background

The controversy over the use of the name “Allah” for the Christian God in the media and books, including the Bible, in Bahasa Malay (the official language in Malasia) broke out in 2008, when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke The Herald‘s licence to publish if it continued to use the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God. It had used the word for 14 years. In response, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church sued the government for violating rights enshrined in the constitution.

On 31 December 2009, the High Court overturned the ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” in their literature. In the judgment of Justice Lau Bee Lan, The Herald had the constitutional right to use the word “Allah” and the Minister of Home Affairs was wrong to impose the condition prohibiting the use of the word on the publication licence.

The ruling angered many Muslims, who consider the word exclusive to Islam. The decision sparked a wave of violence, and three churches were firebombed in Kuala Lumpur, the capital. A petrol bomb thrown at the Metro Tabernacle church on 8 January 2010 was the first in a series of arson attacks and vandalism at places of worship, including eleven churches, a Sikh temple, three mosques and two Muslim prayer rooms. In the suburb of Bangsar, there were reports of cars displaying Christian symbols having their windscreens smashed. In an attempt to appease the extremists, the Malaysian government decided to appeal the High Court ruling.

Malaysia’s population of 28 million people is nearly 63 percent Muslim, and Sunni Islam is the official religion. Christians are the third largest religious group (after Buddhists) with about 2.6 million members, nearly 13 percent of the population. Many Christians are from the ethnic Chinese group that accounts for 31 percent of the population.

Reaction

The Rev Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, said he was “disappointed and dismayed” by the appeals court ruling, which he called a “retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities”. In Indonesia and the Middle East, he added, “Allah” is used by Christians and Muslims alike. He announced that an appeal would be made to the Federal Court.

The Minister of Agricultural Development of the state of Sarawak – one of the territories that make up the Malaysian part of Borneo – said, “We (Christians in Sabah and Sarawak) have been using the word Allah for over 100 years. Why suddenly are we now told we cannot use it?” He said that Muslims in Sabah and Sarawak (whom he described as “brothers”) had never opposed the use of the word by Christians.

In a letter to pastors, elders and church leaders, Eugene Yapp, Secretary-General of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia, wrote that several implications might be drawn from the judges’ ruling:

1. Freedom of religion in Malaysia for the minority is now subject to the dictates of Islam and Muslim sentiments. This state of affairs is unacceptable and is not desirable in a plural society like Malaysia. The Sikhs are affected too as they use the word “Allah” in their holy writings.
2. The State apparatus… has taken on the role to define what is essential and integral to religion… contrary to Article 11(3) of the Federal Constitution whereby each religion has a right to manage its own affairs.
3. To say that one group or community must yield to the interest of a bigger community will eventually lead to the tyranny of the majority where what is right is no longer defined by truth but by the wishes of the majority. This goes against the grain of constitutionalism and the role of a pluralist democracy.

The Secretary-General called for a season of prayer and fasting and advised, “We should seek to work with people of other faiths, like-minded intellectuals and the international community to expose the tyranny and spirit of confusion that is being sown in our nation, so that peace and harmony might prevail. May we as Christians continue to build bridges with those of other religious persuasions so that together we may contribute to an atmosphere of mutual respect and acceptance whereby all may celebrate each other’s uniqueness and differences.”

(Asia News, Morning Star News, National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia)