Malaysia’s Allah controversy is fundamentally a political issue about how different communities relate to one another. It is not a legal issue. The Catholic Church needs to take account of the Malay community’s majority view before deciding on the next step.
If unrestricted use of the word Allah is not acceptable to the moderate Malay community, then the Church, together with others, should search for a compromise that will preserve the religious practices of Christians in East Malaysia as well as that of the Sikhs, who also refer to their God as Allah.
The concept of “what is integral to a religion” may provide the framework for such a compromise. It is hoped that all sides will approach the issue in a spirit of goodwill and with a desire to find a solution.
The Court of Appeal’s decision on the use of the word Allah has angered and worried the Christian community and other segments of society. But if the decision had gone the other way, it would have angered segments of the Malay community.
This shows that the issue fundamentally is not a legal issue but a political one about how the communities relate to one another. It is only a political settlement that will allow both communities to feel satisfied and secure.
Many place their trust and hopes on the social contract reached by our forefathers and enshrined in the Malaysian constitution. It is certainly a good place to start, but constitutions are subject to differing interpretations.
Governments appoint judges who favour their political outlook. Just look at the different outlooks of Supreme Court judges appointed by American Democratic and Republican presidents.
If the majority race is united, they could command the two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitution. Just as marriage vows cannot guarantee a lasting marriage and relationships have to be worked on, so too a country has to work on its relationships, that is, in politics, and not rely entirely on its constitution.
Interpretations of the Court of Appeal decision
There are three possible positions that the mainstream Malay community can take:
1. That the Court of Appeal decision is completely wrong and the use of the word Allah should be unrestricted. This is certainly the view of the MP for Sepang and PAS central committee member Mohamed Hanipa Maidin, expressed in a very well written article for Malaysiakini, and of Professor Abdul Aziz Bari.
2. That the decision applies to Herald only and not to East Malaysia. This appears to be the position of Muslim Lawyers’ Association of Malaysia President, Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) deputy president, Aminuddin Yahaya and the Malaysian government.
3. That the decision implies a blanket ban on the use of the word Allah by all non-Muslims including in East Malaysia and presumably in the Sikh holy books as well. This appears to be the view of the lawyer for Herald and is demanded by Perkasa. It seems to be implicit in what PAS syura council deputy chief Haron Din wants when he says the “holy name is exclusively for Muslims only”.
Views of the mainstream Malay community
In assessing what the strategic objectives of its next move should be, surely the Roman Catholic Church should take the mainstream Malay community’s view into account. This is because the judgment of the full bench of Federal Court, the final appellate court, will most likely mirror the Malay community’s view.
Secondly, it is quite clear that certain quarters in Umno and groups such as Perkasa are fanning distrust and fear of Chinese and Christians as a means of holding on to or gaining power. We must guard against unknowingly and carelessly giving ammunition to such people.
It seems incredible that in his judgment, Justice Datuk Mohamed Apandi Ali could write: “It is my judgment that the most possible and probable threat to Islam, in the context of this country, is the propagation of other religions to the followers of Islam.”
As far-fetched as this claim is, surely Church leaders must ask themselves if they could have done more to prevent this perception of Christians taking hold?
What is the Malay community’s majority view or, put another way, what does the silent Malay majority want? The evidence I am aware of is not too promising. I remember reading a survey which found that a high percentage of Malays (70%) considered the thought of another religion using the word Allah “disturbing”.
What is also highly significant is that PAS leader, Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang’s initial stand that Islam cannot forbid other religions from using the word Allah, provided it is not abused, was reversed by a revolt of its syura council, led by Datuk Haron Din. This would seem to indicate strong opposition at the grassroots level.
However, we should not depend on past history and should assess the Malay community’s majority position again, in particular whether it can be changed by arguments. The picture is not completely dark.
Apart from the two prominent Muslims who have come out against the decision of the Court of Appeal, there are others who have said that the decision only applies to Herald and not to East Malaysia, such as the president of the Muslim Lawyers’ Association of Malaysia and the deputy president of Isma.
Others, such as former Perlis mufti, Datuk Dr Asri Zainul Abidin, former PAS syura council member Wan Ji and Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) have come out against the extreme position taken by the adviser to the Johor Islamic Council that all Muslims who question the court’s ruling become infidels.
Dialogue with such individuals and organisations will help to clarify what is and what is not acceptable to the mainstream Malay community.
Strategic choices for the Catholic Church
If MP Hanipa Maidin and others of his thinking can deliver a united PAS in favour of the unrestricted use of the word Allah, and dialogue indicates that this is acceptable to the mainstream Malay community, then clearly the Church should make unrestricted use of the word Allah its strategic objective.
But if PAS as a party comes down on the side of Haron and dialogue indicates that unrestricted use of the word Allah is not acceptable to the mainstream Malay community, then the Church must consider whether it is in its best interests to pursue what is almost certainly a lost cause or switch to an acceptable compromise.
The important battle surely is not to achieve unrestricted use of the word Allah, but to counter groups like Perkasa, whose demands for a blanket ban on the use of the word Allah by all non-Muslims will lead to chaos for Christians in East Malaysia and for Sikhs.
To win this battle, we need the support of the moderate Malay community. And if a necessary condition of such support is recognition of their sensitivity by accepting restrictions on the use of the word Allah, then it seems to me to be an honourable compromise.
A compromise that springs to mind is to restrict the court’s decision to Herald, thus excluding East Malaysia. But does this mean that another publication called (say) Church Times can use the word Allah? If not, the restriction must apply to Peninsular Malaysia and not just Herald.
In that case, what happens to the Sikhs, whose Holy Book contains the word Allah?
The question of the Sikhs has been pushed to the side, but should be brought centre stage as it is of great help in framing a solution. Firstly, to counter those like Haron, who claims that the “holy name is exclusively for Muslims only”, we do not need to point to Arabia but to the Sikhs on our own doorstep.
Secondly, note that one of the main grounds for the Court of Appeal decision is that “Allah is not essential to or an integral part of Christianity” but in the Sikh religion, Allah is clearly “essential to or an integral part of” the religion as it is found in the Holy Book.
Therefore, clearly the court must protect the right of the Sikh religion to use the word Allah. Once the precedent has been established that one religion can use Allah, surely it becomes less difficult for mainstream Malay community to accept its use by East Malaysian Christians.
How then can we frame a rule that allows the word Allah to be used in the Sikh religion and East Malaysia but not in the Christian community of Peninsular Malaysia? I think the solution lies in the concept of “an integral part of the religion”.
The word Allah is integral to the Sikh religion because it is found in their Holy Book. It is integral to Christianity in East Malaysia and the Malay-speaking church congregations in Peninsular Malaysia. It is not integral among Christian communities who use the English or Mandarin Bible.
The concept must be applied to objective, verifiable facts, such as the number of Malay-speaking Christians, and not to a judge’s subjective assessment of what is integral to a religion that is not his, which clearly he is not competent to do.
A lot of confusion from court decision
There is another advantage in using the concept of integral.
Datuk Zaid Ibrahim in a recent article has said that the Malay community is tolerant, moderate and reasonable. I agree. It seems to me to be very uncharacteristic of the Malay community, and even unIslamic, to want to destroy another religion. But that is what would happen if any element that is integral to a religion is forbidden or banned.
It is clear that the Court of Appeal decision gives rise to a lot of confusion as to its scope and application. It is encouraging that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak in his speech to the PBS delegates’ conference in Sabah said Christians in East Malaysia can continue to use the word Allah.
But the court judgment does not limit its application in any way. There is therefore a contradiction between the judgment and the federal cabinet’s 10-Point Agreement. If we are to be a country governed by the rule of law and not by the whims and fancies of the government, this contradiction must be resolved, either through new legislation or through appeal to the full bench of the Federal Court, the highest court of the land.
Hopefully the resolution will also take account the Malay-speaking church congregations in peninsular Malaysia as well as the Sikh religion. Najib should demonstrate his commitment to “taking care of each other’s religious sensitivities” by giving his full backing to this process.
The peaceful and harmonious relationships between the various religious communities in our country will be tested in the months ahead as we resolve the controversy over the use of the word Allah.
It is hoped that the Roman Catholic Church is aware that the issue does not involve it alone but has repercussions for the Sikh religion and all Malaysians who value inter-racial and inter-religious peace and harmony. It is hoped that the Roman Catholic Church will consult widely and coordinate with others before taking the next step. It is hoped that all sides will approach the issue in a spirit of goodwill and with a desire to find a solution. Failure to do so will mean a stormy future for all communities in the country. - Aliran.com, November 6, 2013.
* Dr Ronnie Ooi, a retired medical doctor who was active in the Gerakan party 25 years ago, is a member of rights group Aliran. He returned to Malaysia five years ago after living 20 years in the UK.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.