By Kee Thuan Chye
Jan 13 2014
As the ‘Allah’ issue rages on, particularly after the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) raided the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) and seized 300-plus copies of the Bible in Malay and Iban on January 2, let’s take a moment and look at it in perspective.
How did it start?
Not, as falsely claimed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, because Malaysia has become more liberal and Malaysians are testing the limits of their “new-found freedom”. Not, as he says, because some groups “purposely come up with something to annoy people” or that they want to run down other religions.
That is the usual kind of poppycock for which he has of late been fond of spinning.
The whole mess started in 2009 with Syed Hamid Albar, who was home minister then, banning the Catholic weekly The Herald from using the word ‘Allah’ in its Bahasa Malaysia section. Prior to that, there had been no issue. Christians in Sabah and Sarawak had been using it for ages, long before they joined the Federation of Malaysia. No one had raised a hue and cry.
Yes, at the time there was already a ministerial order, issued by the home ministry in 1986, which banned all non-Muslim publications from using the word ‘Allah’, along with three other words – ‘solat’, ‘Kaabah’ and ‘Baitullah’. But it obviously ignored the fact that ‘Allah’ was in the lexicon of the East Malaysian Christians, and it appeared to have been issued without considering their sensitivities.
Yes, there was also the Control and Restriction Enactment on the propagation of non-Islamic religions among Muslims, which had been passed into law by 10 states in Peninsular Malaysia since 1988, and it prohibits non-Muslims from using a number of Arabic terms, including the word ‘Allah’ and, strangely enough, even ‘fatwa’, ‘sheikh’ and ‘imam’. But this was promulgated for the specific purpose of preventing Muslims from being converted to other religions.
According to former Cabinet minister Zaid Ibrahim, there was “a real concern” then that some Christian evangelists were aggressively converting Muslims, so the enactment came about. But, he adds, in dealing with this concern, the Government “took the easy and lazy way out”. It thought that by merely gazetting a few regulations banning the use of some words, the problem would be solved. It wasn’t.
It created the further problem of restricting the use of these words even on occasions when they were not being used by non-Muslims to propagate to Muslims. In senior lawyer Roger Tan’s reading of the law, such a restriction contravenes Articles 3(1), 10, 11(1), 11(3), 11(4) and 12(3) of the Federal Constitution.
He explains that “a state law can only be enacted to proscribe a Christian from delivering a Bible which contains the word ‘Allah’ to a Muslim and not if the former uses the same Bible for his own personal belief”. It therefore follows that certain aspects of the enactment are unconstitutional.
In fact, in 2010, the PAS MP for Shah Alam, Khalid Samad, spearheaded a working committee to review those aspects for the state of Selangor, in particular the ban against non-Muslims using the Arabic terms. He said, “As a follower of Islam, I do not find this acceptable. It makes our religion seem so unfriendly and so segregated from the rest of mankind.”
But what has been the outcome of that review?
Nothing, it would seem. Because Jais was invoking this same enactment when it raided BSM’s premises on January 2. (Numerous lawyers, including Roger Tan and Bar Council President Christopher Leong, Syahredzan Johan, Eric Paulsen, Firdaus Husni, Andrew Khoo, Amer Hamzah Arshad, Edmund Bon, Fahri Azzat and Nizam Bashir have since pointed out that the raid was illegal.)
Still, the question needs to be asked: Why did Syed Hamid take the action against The Herald in 2009 and, in the words of Sarawak Land Development Minister James Masing, “stir up the Allah issue”?
“Nobody talked about it before this, and the people in Sabah and Sarawak of all religions had no problem with the use of ‘Allah’ in Christian Bibles,” says Masing. “Did Syed Hamid politicise the issue?”
Syed Hamid says he didn’t. He claims “it was the right thing to do to prevent confusion” among Muslims.
But then again, why would it confuse Muslims when ‘Allah’ was used only within the church, among Christians? And when it pertained to The Herald, the publication had to state on its masthead that it was for Christians only?
Furthermore, Syed Hamid himself had initially agreed to letting The Herald continue to use ‘Allah’ as long as it observed this condition. He himself signed the order granting that, and it was even gazetted on February 16, 2009. But 12 days later, he reneged on it and banned The Herald from using the word. Why the sudden change?
Was it because the Umno elections were coming up in March and Syed Hamid was vying for a senior position in the party, and he was thus prompted to use the issue to win the favour of the voting delegates?
Whatever it was, The Herald challenged the ban in the High Court, and in December that year, the court ruled that the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians was protected by the Federal Constitution as long as it was not used to proselytize Muslims.
Looking at it from the point of law, we should think the judgement made sense. We should think that Syed Hamid erred in imposing the ban on The Herald. After all, Articles 3(1) and 11(1) guarantee the fundamental right of every non-Muslim to profess and practise their own religion in peace and harmony. And every religious group is assured the right to manage its own religious affairs. But the Government didn’t think so, and it decided to appeal the decision – in January 2010.
Meanwhile, a fresh controversy broke out in January 2011 when the home ministry seized 35,000 copies of the Malay-language Bible (Al-Kitab) bound for the Sarawak Christian market. The ministry reasoned that the books were impounded because they referred to God as ‘Allah’ and the ‘Allah’ case was under appeal. But the Christian community protested strongly because the seizure infringed on their constitutional right. As pressure mounted and the Sarawak state elections scheduled for April drew near, Najib realised BN could lose the Christian votes it needed, and was thus forced to act.
Using his minister Idris Jala, a Sarawak Christian, as the intermediary, he proposed a 10-point solution. It called for the impounded Bibles to be released, lifted all restrictions against the local printing and importation of Bibles in Malay and indigenous languages, gave special dispensation to Sabah and Sarawak, and promised to work with Christian groups to address inter-religious issues. It all looked very good on paper.
But Bishop Ng Moon Hing, Chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), called it a “one-policy, two-countries” approach that was “confusing and unacceptable”. It set different standards for Pensinsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. It forbade the use of ‘Allah’ in the former but allowed it in Sabah and Sarawak. The aptness of his statement has since been reinforced by subsequent developments.
On October 2013, more than three-and-a-half years after the appeal was filed, the Court of Appeal ruled that “the usage of ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the Christian faith” and therefore overturned the High Court’s decision.
This came to be interpreted by some quarters as meaning that ‘Allah’ was exclusive to Muslims. In which case, it should not be used by the Christians of East Malaysia as well. And therefore Najib’s 10-point solution was not valid. But government ministers and the Attorney-General were quick to point out that the verdict was concerned only with The Herald and had no bearing on the Al-Kitab.
Others disagreed. Constitutional lawyer Fahri Azzat argued that the Court of Appeal’s stand on ‘Allah’ being not an integral part of Christianity “clearly meant that the word was the monopoly of Muslims and the Islamic faith in this country”. As such, he added, “non-Muslims cannot use the word in any publication, including in the Al-Kitab.”
Veteran lawyer Karpal Singh said the Attorney-General “cannot misconstrue the ruling in a narrow manner to hold the view that only The Herald was banned from using the word … it is crystal clear that the judges have decided that non-Muslims have no right to use the word in any form whatsoever”. He also said the decision rendered “null and void” the 10-point solution.
There was even confusion among government ministers. Joseph Kurup said East Malaysian Christians residing in the peninsula could use ‘Allah’ in their worship, but Nazri Aziz rebutted and said no. Meanwhile, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said The Herald could not use the word even in East Malaysia, but Idris Jala insisted the 10-point solution was still in force.
So, what gives? Whom do we listen to?