Court ruling on use of word 'Allah': Need to ease tensions

Court ruling on use of word 'Allah': Need to ease tensions
Malaysian Muslim activists wait for the verdict outside Malaysia's highest court in Putrajaya on June 23, 2014. Malaysia's highest court on June 23 dismissed a bid by Christians for the right to use the word 'Allah', ending a years-long legal battle that has caused religious tensions in the Muslim-majority country.

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia - Shortly after Malaysia's Federal Court handed down its verdict on Monday, the government moved swiftly to assure Christians that the ban on the use of the Arabic word "Allah" for God applied strictly to the Catholic Church's publication, the Herald.

The decision, said the government, would not affect its commitment to Christians made three years ago on the use of the word in Malay or Bahasa Indonesia Bibles circulated in the country.

This pledge is the 10-point solution signed by Prime Minister Najib Razak in April 2011.

It allowed the Christian holy book, known as Alkitab in Malay, to be used nationwide, and not confined to Sabah and Sarawak, where most Christians live.

It also allowed Bibles in all languages to be imported, including the Bahasa Indonesia version which contained the word "Allah".

The Cabinet had come out with the 10-point solution to break the impasse over thousands of imported Bahasa Indonesia Bibles that had been impounded since 2009 at Port Klang and Kuching.

The Bibles were later released nationwide but subject to the condition that they bear the symbol of the cross and the words "Christian publication" on the front cover. This was to warn Muslims to refrain from reading them.

While the assurance this month was timely to show that the government had not breached the three-year-old agreement with Christians, the situation on the ground is a cause for concern.

There has been an escalation in religious tension over some alarming cases of bride detention and body snatching - yes, body snatching - by Islamic religious officials. They all cropped up around the same time this month.

A team of religious officers in Selangor disrupted a Hindu wedding on June 5, claiming that the bride was Muslim because of her Muslim name.

It riled the Hindu community because the Syariah Court later confirmed that the woman was in fact a Hindu. She was then released.

A few days later on June 9, another team of religious officers snatched the body of a Chinese woman at her funeral service in Penang, saying she was a convert and must be given an Islamic burial.

The body was returned to the family after the Syariah Court ruled that she was not Muslim.

Then came a High Court order in a custody dispute between parents of different faiths. The police refused to locate and reunite the children of the Hindu mothers who had been granted custody.

The police said they could not execute the orders as the men, who had unilaterally converted the minors to Islam, had been granted custody by the Syariah Court.

Why are these disputes taking place? They reflect the hardening of positions of the respective communities over their rights to freedom of religion.

They also show the power of the Islamic bureaucracy in protecting Islam and the interests of Muslims given the special position of Islam as the religion of the federation.

There is no denying that the acts of overzealous religious officials have contributed to the rising tension and the frayed inter- ethnic ties.

In such an atmosphere, Monday's court ruling that banned the Catholic Church from using the Allah word in its publication may further strain inter-faith ties if overzealous officials in the Islamic bureaucracy decide to apply the verdict beyond the Herald case.

They may want to confiscate Christian literature and other materials that contain the word "Allah", thereby causing greater religious friction in the country.

Already the zealots have been emboldened by Monday's verdict, as reflected by the refusal of the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) to return more than 300 Malay and Iban language Bibles that they confiscated in a raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia in Shah Alam in January.

The officials have been defiant despite being told by the Attorney-General that there was no case against the Christian group and that the Bibles should be returned.

There are also concerns that the higher court ruling could serve as legal precedent on the lower courts in adjudicating similar cases.

But the Federal Court verdict may not be the last word on the subject.

Next Monday, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur will hear another case where a Christian native from Sarawak, Ms Jill Ireland, is seeking a judicial review of the Home Ministry for the return of a compact disc that it confiscated in 2008.

The disc contained Malay-language Christian education materials that use the word "Allah" to refer to God.

Although religion comes under the purview of the state governments with the nine Malay rulers as head of Islam, there is still much that the federal government can do to help ease tensions.

Both sides could exercise restraint in dealing with religious matters by not rushing to court every time there is a problem. Such differences are matters best dealt with through dialogue.

Religious officers enforcing the Islamic enactments should rethink the way they operate. Minorities also have rights under the Malaysian Constitution that must be respected. The federal government should also be more assertive in handling such issues.

If the 10-point solution is deemed as the best approach in dealing with the issue of Malay-language Bibles and the Allah word, then it should work to sell the idea to the state governments.

Certainly much goodwill could be created if Muslim officials were willing to review the law to see where non-Muslim interests can be accommodated.

This article was first published on JUNE 27, 2014.
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