No more 'Allah' for Christians, Malaysian court says

A court in Malaysia ruled that the Arabic-derived word for 'God' in Malaysian – Allah – can't be used by the nation's Christians.

Samsul Said/Reuters
Muslim demonstrators chant slogans outside Malaysia's Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, Oct. 14. Malaysia's high court ruled on Monday that a Christian newspaper may not use the word 'Allah' to refer to God, a landmark decision on an issue that has fanned religious tensions and raised questions over minority rights in the Muslim-majority country.

In the latest round of a divisive political and religious saga, a Malaysian court ruled Monday that the word “Allah” can only be used by the country's Muslim majority, overturning a previous decision that allowed other faiths using the term to denote “God” in their local-language services and Scriptures.

This morning Malaysia's Court of Appeal issued an expansive ruling that sparked surprise and anger throughout the country. At the court in Malaysia's administrative capital, Putrajaya, Justice Mohamed Apandi read a brief summary of the 100-plus-page judgment. "Our common finding is that the usage of Allah is not an integral part of the Christian faith. We cannot find why the parties are so adamant on the usage of the word," he said.

"Allah" has been used in Christian worship among Malay speakers for centuries, much as it's used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Christians in Indonesia, where the national language is a close cousin of Malaysian, without any controversy. The word passed into local languages over six centuries ago, as Arab traders plied Southeast Asia's seas. 

But in recent years Christian use of the word has become a political football in Malaysia, with an argument's that it's part of a stealth conversion campaign by the country's Roman Catholic and Protestant minority used as a form of identity politics.

The decision, which came at the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage, was officially based on the government's argument that allowing non-Muslims to continue to use the word could rile up Muslim hard-liners and help Christians to proselytize. But Malaysia experts say the ruling, which follows a May election in which the ruling National Front coalition lost the popular vote for the first time (though it retained power), was sought to firm up political support among the country's ethnic Malay and mostly-Muslim majority. 

The election turned on the fight for the rural Malay Muslim vote, with the National Front's faith and fatherland pitch a key factor in swaying that segment of the electorate. Rural votes returned the government to power even as it lost the election in urban areas.

Mohamed Bin Nawab Mohammed Osman of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore says that the ruling is “an attempt by the government to assuage the insecurities of the Malay community about Islam's supreme position in the country.”

Malaysia's politics have turned on ethnic identity since independence. For decades, the government's New Economic Policy provided preferences in government contracting and education to the Malay majority, under the argument that the country's significant ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities had an economic leg up on the Malays during British rule. The largest party in the National Front is called the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), and has usually governed with ethnic-Chinese and Indian-based parties as its junior partners.

The “Allah issue” came up during the latest election campaign, with the opposition saying Christians should be allowed to use “Allah." The Front countered that an opposition win would diminish Islam, and political analysts say it was a successful wedge issue in driving ethnic Malays to the polls. 

UMNO is a nationalist party, not a religion-based one. And the country's largest Islamist party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, is opposed to denying Christians and other religious minorities a word that's long been common in their worship.

Lawrence Andrew is a Catholic priest and editor of The Herald, a Catholic newsletter. The Herald won a 2009 judgement giving it permission to use Allah in local language publications after a decade-long legal battle. That ruling was overturned today. “We will appeal this ruling and no doubt this statement by the court will be a part of it,” Andrews told the Monitor, speaking outside the Court of Appeal.

While it was expected that the court would rule against the Herald, the wording has taken people aback. “It was surprising in the global sense as Allah has been used by Christians to refer to God around the world,” says Ei Sun Oh, a former adviser to Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak.

But the ruling is not a surprise “in the Malaysian sense,” he says. Around 6 out 10 Malaysians are Muslim. The remainder are a mix of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh. By law, all Malays – the majority ethnic group from which the country's name derives – are Muslims and subject to Islamic law.

But Malaysia is a country of many beliefs and tribes, with around a quarter of the 29 million population of Chinese descent. Another 7 percent are of Indian, usually Tamil, descent. Most Chinese-Malaysians voted for the opposition in the last election, sparking allegations of "treachery" by pro-government newspapers. And in recent weeks the government has reneged on preelection pledges to cut back on the longstanding pro-Malay subsidies and preferential treatment in areas like education that have alienated minority groups, particularly the Chinese-Malaysians.

Monday's ruling will likely be seen as another example of official favoritism toward ethnic Malays. “The rest of the world will be curious about the decision, but as they say, Malaysian Muslims are unique since Islam is tied constitutionally to a definition of an ethnic group,” says James Chin, a politics professor at Monash University's Malaysia campus.

(This story was edited after first posting to correct the spelling of the Herald editor's last name. It is Andrew, not Andrews.)

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