Malaysia Fights the ‘Allah’ Case all Over Again

An insecure government seeks to preserve the word ‘Allah’ for Muslims only

The supremacy of ignorance, prejudice, and racism among Malaysia’s ruling elite is again on display in the government’s appeal against a court decision to allow the use of the word “Allah” to refer to God by Christians. The case by implication also pits actual practices in racially and religiously mixed Sarawak and Sabah against the exclusivist Malay Muslim attitudes of a Peninsular Malaysia-dominated Federal Government.

In this case, a Maranau (hence indigenous and classed as bumiputra) Christian from Sarawak appealed against an earlier government ruling that Christian books in the  Malay language could not use Allah in reference to God. In a case which dates to 2008, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur ruled that the Home Ministry actions were illegal as they were contrary to the religious freedom promised in the constitution.

Justice Nor Been also ruled that certain other Arabic words including Solat (prayer) and Baitullah (house of God) could also be used by Christians. However, the issue is more political than genuinely religious. Right-wing Malay groups are sure to use it as a rallying cry, “proof” that Islam and Malays are under threat from Christians and non-believers (ie Chinese). The claim is absurd given that Muslims are not only the majority but have always controlled the Federal government and are further protected by a wall of discriminatory laws and constitutional provisions which guarantee their supremacy and deny Malays the right to choose their religions for themselves.

With an election likely later this year, Malay parties, the Parti Islam se-Malaysia, Bersatu, and UMNO will likely compete to denounce the ruling, creating yet more tensions within society, further undermining the hope, which had emerged three years ago following the massive defeat of UMNO in the 2018 election, for a genuinely multi-racial ruling coalition. Members of all three of those parties are represented in the shaky Perikitan Nasional alliance currently keeping Prime Minister Muhiyuddin Yassin in office by a thread, thanks to a thinly-disguised emergency decree by the King. Faced with a loss of seats that would have led to an election, Muhyiddin scurried to the king with an excuse that Covid-19 was on the rise and parliament needed to be suspended.

A case back in 2009 over a Malay language Catholic newspaper’s use of Allah led to a rash of attacks on churches. The Federal court then caved into such pressure and ruled against the Catholic paper.

Now the latest issue will come before the Court of Appeal thanks to Solicitor General Abdul Razak Musa, who filed an appeal against the High Court decision. Although lawmakers from Sabah and Sarawak have urged the government to withdraw its appeal, it is sadly likely that it will go forward.

For the past 40 years, Malaysia has been in practice burying many of its own traditions – of dress, of adat law, mosque architecture, etc – under a motley collection of codes and practices imported uncritically from the less advanced parts of the Sunni Arab world – notably the desert traditions of Saudi Arabia.

But the one thing that they have steadfastly refused to learn is that in the Arab world in general, or at least which permits other religions, the word Allah has always been used to describe the One God who is shared by the “people of the book” – the related Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Nor are their Christian brethren in Indonesia prohibited from describing God as Allah.

Meanwhile, Christians are not the only ones subject to pressures from an orthodoxy imposed by the state and its religious affairs bureaucracy. Shias, Sufis, and others not conforming to the official religion face difficulties in organizing, and Hindu temples are occasional targets for developers.

Malay history has become so distorted that its glorious pre-Islamic days – the Srivijyan empire – are air-brushed out of the picture and ancient non-Islamic remains, such as those at Bujang Valley in Kedah under threat.

It is no wonder that the nation suffers a continuing brain drain of talent – including Malays – and its state universities have declined on an international scale.

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