On May 11, 2008, Jill Ireland, a member of the Melanau tribe in Sarawak, landed at the low cost carrier terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, carrying with her eight compact disks containing Christian educational materials in the Indonesian language and intended for her personal use.
The CDs were confiscated by customs authorities on the basis that they contained the word Allah to denote the Christian god. It has become the third of three cases the government would probably like to forget.
Six years later, Ireland is still trying to get her CDs back. It is one of three major cases involving the Allah controversy. The case was supposed to come before Kuala Lumpur High Court Judge Zaleha Yusoff on May 15. Yusoff, however, went on leave, raising questions whether the government would prefer that the case stay on the back burner. The case now has been deferred to June 30.
The Allah issue has earned the country widespread international ridicule and is tearing apart the multi-racial and multi-religious fabric of Malaysian society. It is the only Muslim country in the world, including all of the Arab nations and Indonesia, that bars Christian use of the word. Language scholars point out that it was used as a Christian name for God in the Middle East before Islam came into being.
The High Court actually granted Ireland leave for judicial review on May 4, 2009 – five years ago. But the hearing for the legal battle has yet to begin. It is a particularly thorny one for the government because as Ireland has said repeatedly, the compact disks, which are perfectly legal in Indonesia, where they were made, were for her personal use.
Sources close to the case said that the judicial review is supposed to be the final in a series of court cases involving the Allah controversy in Malaysia for at least the next 12 months. The government, the sources say, wants no more such cases to come before the courts for awhile in order to appease the country’s Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the population.
However, Aziz Bari, a professor and constitutional expert who appeared at the court, said “Both the government and the judge have to understand that the case involves eight CDs, which are meant for Jill Ireland’s personal usage. They were never meant for proselytisation purposes. Hence, either the government should just withdraw the case or the judge should make a ruling that will put the house in order.”
“In short, the Ministry of Home Affairs could have just returned the eight CDs to Jill Ireland, and the case is close,” pointed out Aziz. “The longer the case is being dragged, the worse it will become. How long more can the country fight over that one name of Allah?”
The Allah controversy can be traced back more than three decades ago, when the government painted itself into a corner it can’t get out of. Capitulation on an issue that should never have become an issue, since it isn’t anywhere else, is something the authoritarian government can’t do without humiliating itself. Successive court cases have only hardened the government’s stance on an irrational issue.
Since 1982, barely a year after Mahathir Mohamad became the country’s fourth prime minister, Malaysian Muslims have maintained that they have exclusive claim to the name Allah, and non-Muslims were forbidden from using the name of Allah in their publication.
In that same year, the Indonesian Alkitab, or Christian Bible, used mainly by native Christians in Sabah and Sarawak, was banned although it continues in widespread use. In 1986, the government issued a directive that banned the use of Allah in non-Muslim publications. It was on this directive that customs seized Ireland’s CDs.
The same controversy led to a more celebrated case involving the Catholic Church, which led to the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruling in favor of the use of the word Allah by the Herald, a Malaysian Catholic weekly newspaper, on Dec 31, 2009. The same court had ruled that Islam’s position as the federal religion of the country did not empower the government to prohibit the use of the word Allah. It also found that the word Allah was not exclusive to Muslims.
The High Court rule, however, led to a series of street demonstrations involving Malaysian Muslims, which Najib had claimed the government could do nothing about. After several firebombings of religious places of worship, the government belatedly appealed and reversed the High Court decision.
The Herald case is now awaiting a hearing date before the country’s Supreme Court, with no date in view. Lawyers that have fought the case said any claim to exclusivity of the term “Allah” at the expense of native Bumiputra Christians of Sabah and Sarawak as well as a younger generation of Christians in Peninsular Malaysia who are proficient only in the Malay language, cannot prevail given the constitutional provisions on religious liberty and freedom.
“However, the situation is dicey,” a lawyer involved in the case said on condition of anonymity. “The court can decide otherwise. This is why we feel that the rights of the minority are being suppressed.”
In another case involving the Sabah church of Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical branch of Christianity in East Malaysia, the High Court judge referred to the appellate court’s decision, saying she was bound by the Superior Court ruling suggesting a Muslim monopoly over “Allah”
Aziz said that the Ireland case will once again put to test the already doubtful sincerity of Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Razak’s transformation plan since taking over from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2009. Najib had been using his all-inclusive One Malaysia campaign during the last General Election in 2013, and prior to the Sarawak state election in 2011, his government had also drawn up a 10-point agreement for both East Malaysian states.
However, when the Bible Society of Malaysia was raided in January this year, Najib said the agreement was subject to state constitutions and enactments on the use of terms deemed exclusive to Muslims. “As the Federal Government, it must ensure that the Constitution of the country is always upheld,” said Aziz.