A Malaysia appellate court’s decision to ban the use of the word “Allah” to mean “God” by a Roman Catholic newspaper, which is now pushing the country’s Christians and Muslims farther apart, stems from a political decision that reaches back as far as 1981, when former premier Mahathir Mohamad came into office.
However, unless it is viewed in its political context, it is a controversy that is difficult for non-Malaysians to understand, since the word Allah has been used everywhere by Christians and Jews in the Middle East since centuries before the Prophet Mohamad founded Islam in about 600 AD. It is also used in Malay-language Bibles without controversy just across the Strait of Malacca in Indonesia.
The term Allah had been in use in Malaysia as well without argument since 1615 when the first Portuguese missionaries began converting indigenous peoples, mainly in East Malaysia. As early as 1890, Malay language bibles were being printed in Hong Kong for use in Malaysia. About 60 percent of Christian Malaysians, most of them in East Malaysia, speak no other language than Malay, according to Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor and publisher of the Catholic Herald, and denote their god as Allah.
However, in 1981, as Islamic fervor rose across the Muslim world following the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 ouster of a secular government in Iran, the Home Affairs Ministry actually labeled the Malay language edition of the Bible a threat to national security and prohibited its use across the country. Later the government relented and allowed the country’s 2 million Christians, who make up about 9 percent of the population, access to the book.
The running battle that has taken place between the government and Christians over the issue has waxed and waned ever since, with the Home Affairs Ministry repeatedly warning the Catholic Herald, which publishes in several languages including Malay, not to use the word to denote god. Finally in 2009, Syed Hamid Albar, then the Home Affairs minister, issued an order banning use of the word in the Herald. At that point a weakened Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, enfeebled by the relative beating his national ruling coalition had taken in the 2008 election, was unable to stop the decision.
“Syed Hamid banned it when he was home minister,” a Malay source told Asia Sentinel “Pak Lah [Badawi] disagreed with Syed Hamid but he did nothing about it as he was already weak and on the way out. Hardliners in the cabinet like Rais Yatim and a few others backed Syed Hamid and Pak Lah backed off.”
Immediately after the banning, the Catholic Herald sued in a Kuala Lumpur high court – with a Buddhist presiding – who ruled that use of the word was legal. The government appealed.
The Barisan Nasional a few months earlier had taken the relative worst beating of its history, losing its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time since it came into being in 1963. Energizing the Malay base, which now make up about 60 percent of the population and a far greater proportion of the supposedly multiracial Barisan, was becoming crucial. Using the supposed threat to their religion as a way to do that appears to have become a priority.
At about the same time, the Home Affairs Ministry, under Syed Hamid, established a “Publication and Quranic Texts Control Division,” which seeks to be “the best organization, preserver of the people’s well-being from threats of negative publications and distortion of Qur’anic texts” and to “preserve the well-being of the people through the regulation and enforcement of publications and Qur’anic texts.”
The Quranic Texts Control Division has established a wide range of other words besides Allah, which non-Muslims are not allowed to use. In addition, several individual states maintain their own list of banned words. All forms of printing/publishing containing words from the Quran must obtain permission from the Board of Control and License Al-Quran printings.
Was Syed Hamid’s decision a political decision, a well-placed Kuala Lumpur source was asked, or a religious one?
“Man, everything in this country is political,” the source said. That would include the courts, which have been notoriously sensitive to the government’s wishes since they were politicized by Mahathir in the 1980s, immune from the political winds.
“The fact that the Court of Appeal was composed of three Muslim judges whose credibility was suspect, presiding over a case involving the Christian faith, meant that the cards were stacked against the Herald from the very beginning,” said Joe Fernandez, a Sabah-based activist.
The next big question is how to stop the use of the word Allah by anybody, or the other words banned by the Publication and Quranic Texts Control Division, since something like 1.2 million Malay speaking Christians probably aren’t going to substitute Tahun in their prayers and liturgy. And with tens of thousands of Bibles already in the hands of Christian Malays, it’s doubtful that the government will get them to throw them away.
The Christian Federation of Malaysia, in a statement said it expects the government and the cabinet to continue to honor an agreement that would allow continued use of the Bahasa Malaysia Bible, known in Malay as the Alkitab, and that the members of the federation would continue to use the word Allah in worship, liturgy, prayers and educational materials.