A Malaysian Christian weekly publication called The Herald will no longer be allowed to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, according to a Malaysian court of appeals ruling. In a country where religious, ethnic, and political issues are intimately intertwined, the October 14 decision by an all-Muslim panel of judges has created backlash from multiple angles. Its significance promises to extend beyond the bounds of one publication.
The ruling overturned a 2009 decision by the Kuala Lumpur High Court that allowed The Herald to use the word “Allah” in its masthead, provided that it also clearly stated that the magazine was “for Christians only.” Many churches were attacked in response to the decision highlighting the contentious role the government plays in protecting both religious freedom and Islam.
Around 60 percent of Malaysia’s population is Muslim; 50 percent are ethnic Malays, who by law must be Muslim to qualify as Malay. Even with a clear religious majority, Malaysia guarantees religious freedom in its Constitution to those who practice their faiths “in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” Yet the relationship between religion and government is ambiguous because of the religious requirement for ethnic Malays, as well as because of the strength of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the coalition that has ruled the nation since independence in 1957.
Two clear positions have emerged in response to this new decision. On one side, the all-Muslim judiciary and many Malays reason that Article 11 of the Constitution restricts “the propagation of religious doctrine among persons professing the religion of Islam,” and that it is within the government’s purview to restrict language that could be used to convert Muslims to other faiths. Chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali called this propagation “the most possible and probable threat to Islam” when announcing the ruling. Furthermore, the decision stated, “The word Allah is not an integral part of the faith of Christianity,” and its use in this capacity could disrupt political and social order in the country.
On the other side, Christians argue that the word has been part of their faith for centuries and that “Allah” is a Malay word borrowed from Arabic, and not a word of exclusively Muslim origin. In the Arab world and in Indonesia, Christians have used “Allah” to refer to their God for centuries without controversy, and Christians in Malaysia overwhelmingly view the new ruling as an infringement on constitutional religious freedoms.
One region, Sarawak, has denounced the ruling and resolved to continue to allow the word in the Bible and in religious publications. Reverend Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, called the decision “a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities.”
In order to better understand the intent of the decision, we need to evaluate it in the context of the Malaysian political climate. This past May, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s UMNO-led coalition emerged victorious in the elections, but they posted their weakest results since Malaysia’s independence. Before this election, Najib was viewed as a reformer and was praised for rolling back some of the institutionalized favoritism of Malays. However, with the UMNO’s grip on governance weakening, he has needed to appease the conservative wing of his coalition, backtracking rapidly on previous reforms.
During the Prime Ministerial elections, the UMNO successfully drove ethnic Malays to the polls by arguing that an opposition win would diminish Islam. According to Mohamed Bin Nawab Mohamed Osman of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, the UMNO’s Barisan National (BN) coalition hopes to “assuage the insecurities of the Malay community about Islam’s supreme position in the country.”
It thus appears that this court decision was not a move to oppress Christians so much as one to appease the country’s ethnic majority.
While Malays and Muslims constitute a majority of the country’s population, there are significant presences of ethnic and religious minorities. If the UMNO continues to play politics to cater to one group, it may earn support from that group, but will certainly receive backlash from others. The ruling coalition’s bargaining strategy won’t solve the unrest they aim to contain; they will simply move such feelings of unrest and discontent from one group to another.
The Herald has stated its intent to appeal the court’s decision, and depending on the political needs of the BN coalition, it may or may not be overturned. The opposition agrees: A government that uses the constitutional liberties of its peoples as bargaining chips cannot sustain its approval in the long run in a country as cosmopolitan as Malaysia. The country’s future will depend upon the sum total of its policies, but this controversy has brought the issue of religious freedoms to the forefront of Malaysia’s political debate.