By Pierre de Charentenay SJ
June 10, 2013
THE DEBATE on the use of the word Allah by Christians in Malaysia has been going on for many years in that country of 28 million people, with 60% of Muslims, 20% of Buddhists and 9% of Christians. But it gets more and more tense and reveals profound divisions. The possibility of conflict is enshrined in the constitution because of ambiguities in formulation. This was obvious in an answer given to a question posed in the parliament in 2007: "Malaysia is neither a secular state, nor a theocratic country. It is an Islamic state, administered on the principles of Islam." The problem is that multiple amendments to the Constitution have changed the spirit of the text.
Today, Islam is the official religion of Malaysia. The statute of the Sharia law is equivalent to this of the civil law. The ambiguity is still reinforced when the Malay tradition makes identification between races and religion: all Malays are Muslims. What does that mean for those who are neither Muslims not Malay? Is it enough to say that all religions are welcome and respected? The desire of the government is obviously to fix ones and for all the boundaries between cultures so it would avoid trouble.
At the same time, it organizes a progressive Islamisation of the country: the Islamic law applies to all married people; Christians and Hindus are discriminated; education is more and more under influence of Islamic culture. Catholic schools had to choose between being nationalized or becoming totally private (with the heavy financial burden it represents). In the university, students coming from the countryside are becoming Muslims because they receive advantages, lodging, money, security.
The debate on the use of the word Allah takes a new meaning in this context. It has been present in the political, cultural and religious scene for more than 15 years; as soon as 1998, The Herald, the Catholic weekly publication, received a first letter of warning not to use the word Allah in its columns. There has been a second letter in 2002. In 2006, the publication received three letters of rebuke and admonition. In 2008, took place the first confiscation of documents and CD. The Herald explains that, in 2009, "The church has taken the government to court because the ban violated religious freedom, guaranteed by the Constitution. The context was not favourable to Catholics. From February to December 2009, the journal Utusam Malaysia has published an average of one article a day against Catholics, accusing them of proselytism. During all the month of December 2009, there has been a large media campaign against the Catholic journal, The Herald, although the catholic editor never made any critics of Islam in its 14 years of existence. The Church answers: "No comment, we wait for the High Court judgment."
Finally, a judge of the High Court of Kuala Lumpur, Mrs. Datuk Cau Bee Lan, has ruled in December 2009 that the prohibition of the use of word Allah by Christians was illegal. Her judgment of 57 pages was very precise. It did not please the government and the Muslim population. In two weeks, nine churches, one mosque, three Suraus (small mosques), one Sikh temple and one private school had been attacked and burnt. The General Procurator made immediately an appeal on that decision.
The debate went on at all levels: some are ready to give permission to make that use, others criticize those who authorize. The General-Secretary of the opposition party, Lin Guan Eng, said in his 2012 Christmas message that Christians should be authorized to use the word. They have been using the word in all the Middle East without problem. If Malaysia is a democracy, and not a theocracy, why can’t Christians use that word? The Bahasa Bible has been using it for ever. Freedom would be justified: Allah is a pre-Islamic word. No country has ever prohibited the use of Allah by non-Muslims.
On their side, the various councils of Muftis and the national Council for Islamic Affairs of Malaysia have all approved the prohibition. Muslims authorities say that one cannot translate God into Allah, because it is a word which refers only to the god of Muslims.
This discussion bounced recently since the Supreme Court had to rule over the legality of the 2009 judgment. It took almost 4 years to have the approval of the High Court procedure, and to accept the appeal of the General Procurator. This took place last May 23rd, 2013. The procedure can go on with the appeal, and the call of witnesses. But it can go on for many years before the appeal is judged.
The juridical fight seems frozen, because it is too dangerous to cancel the procedure in the eyes of international opinion, but it is more problematic to approve it because of the Muslim opinion. The Church on its side does not want to give in, because it knows that it is a very important symbolic fight. The quarrel is very much political and the religious question hides a bitter fight against a strong opposition to a party, the BN, which has been in power for 57 years, but has lost a lot of ground in the last May 2013 elections.
Meanwhile, the Chinese judge has been downgraded to a lower jurisdiction, and while the procedure drags on in order to avoid a decision, the government goes on with its program of Islamisation of the country.