Viewpoint: What’s in a word – By Karim Raslam

The Government’s refusal to allow Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ presents a number of challenges.

The dispute over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims first erupted in 2008 when the Home Ministry banned the Herald, the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia’s weekly newspaper from using it in its Malay-language section.

Seven years on – after numerous court rulings, rhetoric and demonstrations, it remains a painfully divisive issue. In 2013, the Court of Appeal ruled that the use of the word was not an integral part of the Christian faith.

Needless to say, last week’s’ 4-3 decision by the Federal Court, dismissing the church’s application for leave to appeal against the previous ruling is unlikely to bring closure. In fact, it will muddy the waters even further, which is why we will need all the patience and resolve of the Holy Month of Ramadan to help us manage this issue.

The Government’s refusal to allow Christians to use the word presents a number of challenges.

First, it exposes a fundamental lack of certainty in our laws. On one hand, the “10-point solution” announced by the Federal Government in 2011 states that there is no restriction in East Malaysia on the import and local printing of Bibles in any language, including Malay.

On the other, the latest ruling seems to reinforce the notion that “Allah” should only be used by Muslims. The Government’s insistence that the latest ruling only applied to the Herald and that East Malaysian Christians can still use word “Allah” in church hasn’t resolved the confusion. What is the basis for arguing that you can listen to and say the word, but you can’t have it in writing?

Will this ruling be used by religious authorities as the basis to conduct raids on Malay-language church services?

The Chief Minister of Sarawak, Adenan Satem is to be commended when he pledged that Christians will not be banned from using the word in the state. This is in keeping with East Malaysia’s sterling religious pluralism, which we could all learn from.

Still, the issue remains extremely prickly for Malay politicians from the peninsular. PAS leaders have shown remarkable resolve but risk a potential backlash whilst Umno’s position only increases the gulf between the party and the non-Muslims. Moreover, Umno’s attitude is puzzling when you consider how dependent the Barisan Nasional has become on East Malaysian support to cling on to power. What sort of message are they sending the peoples of Sabah and Sarawak?

Second, it highlights a worrying lack of confidence amongst Malaysians. Some Muslims are concerned that the use of “Allah” by Christians might allow the latter to proselytise. But convincing evidence on this has been lacking. Those who believe that there is a “Christianisation agenda” underestimate the immense faith and passion of Malaysian Muslims.

As I stressed last week, Islam has been accepted by the mainstream as the official religion of the Federation. I see absolutely no reason why Muslims – who have an unshakeable numerical majority should feel threatened by this issue.

Third, the dispute has actually eroded the position of the Malay language. Linguistic nationalists bemoan the fact that many Malaysians, especially non-Malays, do not use it habitually. But is this rational when the Government repeatedly insists that certain words are off-limits for them?

Bahasa Indonesia has no such taboos and all Indonesians – Java­nese, Sumatrans, Sundas, Papuans and Chinese – use, love and feel an ownership of it. The same cannot be said for the Malay language.

The dispute over “Allah” is far from over and it is doing Malaysia no favours. Perhaps some “greater good” is being served but I fail to see what it is. All that is apparent is that our leaders are taking us down a dangerous path.

Muslims – as all people of faith – must always strive for justice and fairness. With respect to the bench, the Federal Court’s ruling has provided for neither. We are still looking for leaders with courage, wisdom and good sense.

About the Author: Karim Raslan is a regional columnist and commentator. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. His online documentaries can be viewed at:

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Catholic Lawyers Society Kuala Lumpur. CLS makes no representation concerning, and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented.

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