The recent High Court ruling permitting the use of four previously-prohibited words in non-Muslim publications is more than a contention about semantics. It concerns the issue of religious rights versus the preserving the exclusivity of Malay-Muslims.
On 10 March 2021, in the judicial review filed by Jill Ireland, the High Court of Malaysia ruled that non-Muslims all over Malaysia are allowed to use the four previously-prohibited words in their publications for educational publications: Allah (God), Solat (prayer), Kaabah (Islam’s holiest shrine), and Baitullah; (house of God). For Christians, it must come with the disclaimer “only for Christians” and the symbol of the cross on the cover of the books.
This case began in 2008 when the Home Ministry seized Malay-language compact discs (CDs) which belonged to Ireland, a Sarawakian Christian, at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) in Sepang. The seized CDs, which bore the word “Allah”, were subsequently returned to Ireland. She then filed a judicial review of a circular issued by the Home Ministry in 1986 over a total ban of the four prohibited words – Allah, Solat, Kaabah and Baitullah. In the High Court’s latest ruling, Justice Datuk Nor Bee Ariffin, the sitting High Court judge, stated that the directive that banned the use of the four words was filled with illegality and irrationality. The ruling quashed a three-decade government ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in their literature.
In response to the court ruling, Muafakat Nasional (MN) which comprises the two largest Malay-Muslim political parties in Malaysia, namely the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), released a press statement and urged the ruling government to refer the case to the Appeal Court. Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), the party led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, has echoed the sentiment. Responses from the public has been relatively calm. But one Muslim woman had threatened to “destroy” the Christian community through a video posted on social media and the authorities have stepped in to investigate the matter.
Five days after the High Court ruling, the government filed an appeal and the case has now been moved to the Court of Appeal. Such quick responses are not unpredictable and bear similarities with The Herald Court case which spanned from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s, when Malaysia’s Catholics and the Home Ministry, the government of Malaysia, and a few Islamic religious councils in Malaysia battled for the use of the word “Allah” in court.
The word “Allah” predates Islam. It is the adaptation of the Aramaic word “Alah” (or “Alaha”) to Arabic. Aramaic was the main language for the Jews and Christians in the Middle East and many Aramaic words were borrowed by Arabic. Even today, it is not uncommon that believers from the Abrahamic tradition use this word in their religious practice.
But not in Malaysia. In Malaysia where more than 60 per cent of the population are Malay, the state promotes Islam and Malay supremacy in the public sphere. There is also a conflation between religious and ethnic identity among the Malay-Muslims as the Constitution defines a Malay as someone who speaks the Malay language, practices Islam and conforms to Malay customs. Any disruption to this intertwined religious and ethnic identity can be construed as challenging the elevated and exclusive status of Malay-Muslims in Malaysia. Hence, in the debate of the proprietary claim of the word “Allah”, it is no longer just a semantic issue, instead, it is about defending religious rights versus preserving the exclusivity of the Malay-Muslim status in Malaysia.
To better understand the issue, it is important to note that Islamic revivalism which started in the late 1970s has harnessed renewed piety among Muslims in Malaysia. The 1979 Iranian Revolution that reverberated in Malaysia inspired a sizable group of young Malaysian Muslims to demand for a stronger Islamic presence in Malaysia. And prior to the Iranian Revolution, there was already greater shift towards conservatism in Malaysia. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia were making strides in pushing for greater conservatism in Malaysia. To accommodate this religious fervour, the UMNO-led government realised that it has to launch its own version of Islamisation to counter PAS’ popularity. Decades of state-sponsored Islamization has not only institutionalised Islam, it has also groomed powerful Islamic religious scholars who could assert their influence and rally around a coherent ideology. They believe that non-Muslims should not use the word “Allah”.
The proprietary claim of the word “Allah” will continue to polarise the multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysian community.
The word “Allah” is particularly contentious in Malaysia because conservative Muslim leaders have always been concerned that Christians will proselytise Muslims using the Malay language. As such, apart from criminalizing proselytisation of Muslims, state enactments were also introduced in the 1980s forbidding non-Muslims from using selected words. Since the 1980s, the state has embarked on more intentional efforts to promote Islam in public life. UMNO – the ruling party at that time – amassed power by promising to safeguard Malay rights.
In contemporary Malaysia, UMNO is no longer the only party that depends on the Malay-Muslim electorate. The political parties that rely on Malay voters understand that championing the Malay-Muslim agenda has to be continued.
Conversely, Christians in Malaysia consider using the word “Allah” as part of their religious rights. At the quotidian level, Christians especially those from East Malaysia and those from the indigenous communities who use the Malay language as their lingua franca have used the word “Allah” even before the formation of Malaysia. In East Malaysia especially, it is a non-issue. Christians in Malaysia have accepted that proselytization to Muslims is forbidden, despite the fact that converting non-believers is part of their religious belief. Nonetheless, most Christian leaders are concerned that the religious rights of non-Muslims could be compromised if conservative Islamism continues to permeate public life and if it is being politicized. Should the issue be exploited by the opposition politicians in the next general election, PN may risk losing the Christian vote from East Malaysia.
The “Allah” controversy will continue to polarise the multiracial and multi religious Malaysian community. At present, the only common ground between the parties at stake is that they see it as a threat. On one hand, non-Muslims, especially Christians see a threat to their fundamental religious rights. On the other, conservative Muslims see a threat to an entitled exclusive collective identity. Given the stark opposing views, it will remain a Sisyphean task to put an end to this deadlock.
Choong Pui Yee is a senior analyst at the Penang Institute, one of Malaysia’s major think tanks.