By Kee Thuan Chye
Firebombs didn’t go off in mosques. Pigs’ heads were not thrown into mosque compounds. These things did not happen after the Court of Appeal ruled against the High Court’s 2009 decision to allow the Catholic weekly newspaper The Herald to use the word ‘Allah’ in referring to God.
They did not happen despite Muslim group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia’s adding insult to injury by telling Christians to accept the verdict or leave the country. Its president, Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, said, “They can choose to move to another country if they cannot accept the supremacy of Islam and the royalty that protects the supremacy of the religion.” It was irrelevant, uncalled-for and provocative, but the community that was targeted did not retaliate with violence. This of course is to its credit.
It did, however, react angrily to the verdict. Rev Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, declared: “This is yet another erosion and infringement of the constitutional protection to the freedom of religious communities to profess and practise their faith and to manage their own affairs. The decision might encourage and fuel further misunderstanding and mistrust between the Muslim and Christian communities which will further undermine the unity of Malaysians.”
Bishop Thomas Tsen, president of the Sabah Council of Churches, said, “It is not fair to say that using ‘Allah’ would confuse Muslim practitioners. No, we have always called our father in heaven ‘Allah Bapak’ or the Lord God ‘Tuhan Allah’… We are sad and disappointed about this current ruling … it challenges the government’s sincerity to see our people united.”
Archbishop Bolly Lapok, chairperson of the Association of Churches, Sarawak, censured chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali for saying that the use of the word ‘Allah’ was not integral to the Christian faith. In strong terms, he said, “The church does not need an apologist from outside to decide what is integral or not integral to our faith. It is repugnant to the universal common sense.”
With justified defiance, he asserted that Christians in Sabah and Sarawak would “continue to reverently worship this ‘Allah’ till kingdom come, and we are asking the Government, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
Bully for Bolly! That’s the attitude to strike against a government that is proving to be increasingly hostile to the minorities. That’s also the way to call a bully’s bluff. That’s what Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno did when in 2009, she was dealt a punishment of six strokes of the cane and a fine for drinking beer in a hotel bar. Instead of cowering, she stood tall and challenged the authorities to bring it on. In the end, her sentence was commuted to three weeks of community service.
Last month, when poet A. Samad Said was arrested and questioned for sedition, the NGO Gagasan Pendidikan Melayu Malaysia urged the Government to take away his Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate) title. And Culture and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek said it was up to the panel that awarded Samad the title to decide whether it should be revoked. But was Samad cowed by it?
No. Instead, he said, “I welcome that with open arms.” He even went further to say, obviously to satirise the recent calls made by a few ministers to revoke the citizenships of some critics of the government, “I even welcome the revocation of my citizenship if that’s what they decide.”
Since then, no further action has been taken against him.
Defiance apparently works. In the ‘Allah’ case, as the Christian community expressed its outrage at the Court of Appeal’s verdict, the Government found itself on the back foot and had to resort to damage control – because the Christian populations of Sabah and Sarawak amount to 1.6 million, and the votes from these two states have been keeping the ruling party in power, including at the recent general election.
To appease them, ministers Joseph Kurup and Maximus Ongkili came out three days after the verdict to say that the Cabinet had decided it would not restrict Sabah and Sarawak Christians from using the word ‘Allah’ in their worship and in their Bahasa Malaysia Bible, Al-Kitab. They emphasised that the Court of Appeal’s ruling was applicable only to The Herald.
But why should there be two standards for this matter? Why is ‘Allah’ all right for Sabah and Sarawak, and not all right for The Herald, based in Peninsular Malaysia?
Besides, the Government’s argument has all along been that ‘Allah’ is to be used exclusively by Muslims. So how come it’s all right for the Government to let the Sabah and Sarawak Christians use it too? This is contradictory to its stand. Obviously, then, the decision to allow for this contradiction must be political.
And since the issue is political rather than religious, Malaysians must see through this ploy of the Government’s and view the issue objectively. Instead of being charged by religious emotion, Muslims must grasp the reality that ‘Allah’ has not been exclusive to Islam even in Arab countries for more than a thousand years. They must realise that the Government is playing with religion for its own political gain.
Former Perlis mufti Asri Zainul Abidin has argued that the word ‘Allah’ predates Islam. This was corroborated by The National, a United Arab Emirates (UAE) newspaper, which, when commenting on the verdict, wrote, “The word ‘Allah’ is never exclusive to Islam – indeed, both Christians and Jews used the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God even before the coming of Islam. When Christians across the Middle East pray to God, they use the term ‘Allah’. Walk into a church in Cairo, Baghdad or Beirut this coming Sunday and you will hear the name of ‘Allah’ invoked.”
The National, which is based in Abu Dhabi, even said that the Court of Appeal’s decision appeared to be “wrong”. How’s that, coming from a Muslim-brother nation?
Since the issue is political, and most Malaysians don’t believe that the judiciary is independent, what should happen next? The Herald has said it would bring the case to the Federal Court, but would that be of any use? Already, before the Court of Appeal sat to hear the appeal, many of us had thought its verdict would be a foregone conclusion. So when it came out, it was not the least bit surprising. How would the Federal Court be different?
The Herald could of course challenge the Court of Appeal’s justification for its verdict, particularly its interpretation of Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution. This interpretation assumes that the use of the word ‘Allah’ will cause unrest in society because the Muslims would be confused, and therefore to maintain “peace and harmony” as spelt out in Article 3(1), the Christian publication should not use it.
However, as has been pointed out by constitutional expert Abdul Aziz Bari and Bar Council President Christopher Leong, the meaning of “peace and harmony” pertains to the Federal Constitution’s guarantee that religions other than Islam enjoy the right to be practised freely, so the Court of Appeal is mistaken in reading it the way it did.
The wording of Article 3(1) is: “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” (my italics) It is clear from this that Abdul Aziz is right in saying that the “plain meaning” of Article 3(1) is “that despite the fact that Islam has been made official religion, non-Muslims may go on practising their religions freely without restriction”, and that “the court is there to protect and enhance the provisions for fundamental liberties, not to narrow them down”.
By the same token, Leong is also right in saying that “the words in their clear and ordinary meaning provide for the right of other religions to be practised unmolested and free of threats”, and that it is unreasonable for a fundamental liberty to be denied “on the basis that some people would be confused”.
Would the Federal Court agree with this and adjudge the Court of Appeal to have erred? Would it also uphold the High Court’s ruling that ‘Allah’ is not exclusive to the use of Muslims?
The answer to that might well be the same for this question: Are there at least a few good men left in the judiciary, even if there appears to be none in the Government? Well, the jury on that, as they say, is still out.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores.