IT TOOK four years for a court in Malaysia to dispose of a case on how God is referred to.
But when the Court of Appeal finally arrived at its judgment on Oct 14, Malaysians were no nearer to getting an answer.
The judges overturned the verdict of a lower court, which had granted the Catholic Church its constitutional right to use the Arabic word "Allah" for God in the Malay section of its newsletter, the Herald, in December 2009.
But did the judgment mean that only Muslims could use the word? Many thought so, particularly after former attorney-general, Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman, insisted that all Malaysians were bound by the ruling. On Oct 21, however, National Unity Minister Joseph Kurup announced that the word Allah was banned only in the Herald, and could be used in worship by all Christians.
The government filed an appeal to restore the ban imposed by the Home Ministry in 1986 on the use of the word Allah for God by non-Muslims in their publications. The appellate court upheld the ban in its judgment. It said the ruling was made in the interest of public order and Islam's vulnerability to conversion efforts by other faiths.
THE word Allah is among 18 in the Islamic vocabulary that non- Muslims are prohibited from using, based on a fatwa by several clerics in 1982 and reaffirmed in 2008 by the National Fatwa Committee that declared the word Allah as being exclusive to Islam. As the fatwa was gazetted, it is legally binding.
A similar ban is found in the Islamic enactments in all the Malaysian states except Sarawak. The ban is meant to assuage fears that Malays would be confused and vulnerable to conversion to Christianity. Christians have been asked to use the Malay word "Tuhan" for God instead of Allah.
The ruling against the Catholic publication marks a decisive turn in the tussle over the word Allah since the authorities started enforcing the restriction in the past three decades. On several occasions, the authorities confiscated Christian literature and other materials containing the word Allah for God, after they were brought into the country by Malaysians.
In one case, thousands of imported bibles in Bahasa Indonesia were impounded in March and September 2009 for containing the word Allah. But the government relented two years later, releasing the books and lifting the ban under a 10-point agreement with church leaders to end the saga over the seized scripture.
Right-wing Malay and Islamist groups such as Perkasa and Pembela have become emboldened by the judgment. They have called for the ban to be extended to all Christian publications, besides the Herald. They also want Malay bibles to be prohibited from using the word Allah.
One Islamist group, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, has gone even further by saying that Christians who could not accept the sovereignty of Islam and the King, as head of the Islamic religion, could always emigrate.
Amid the chest-thumping by the Malay and Islamist groups over the ruling, the Malay-speaking Christian bumiputeras in Sabah and Sarawak, and their relatives who have moved to the peninsula, are dismayed.
But they have rallied to support one another to strengthen their faith and lead their religious lives with greater vigour in referring to God as Allah. This is reflected in the statements and calls for Christian unity by churches in Sabah and Sarawak and a non-Muslim inter-faith body in Kuala Lumpur.
Moderate image at stake
WITH the widening rift between Muslims and Christians over the Allah issue, the image of Malaysia as a moderate Muslim nation could suffer a dent. This is particularly so given the adverse reaction to the ruling in the world community and the absence of a similar ban in other Muslim-majority countries with significant Christian minorities.
For instance, commentators in some countries that practise Islam more strictly than Malaysia, such as the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, have criticised the ruling. The National newspaper of UAE said it was a wrong decision as "the word Allah is never exclusive to Islam".
Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said in a commentary that the decision was a "sad reflection on how an otherwise modern country, widely seen as a role model for the Muslim world, is succumbing to the current trend of insularity in matters of faith".
Islamic scholar Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang said that such criticism was to be expected, as the Arabic word Allah has been widely used by Arabic- speaking Christians in the Middle East to refer to God in their scripture and worship for centuries before the coming of Islam and until today.
"Even Malay-speaking Christian bumiputeras in Sabah and Sarawak have been using the word Allah for years, long before the formation of Malaysia in 1963," he told The Straits Times.
Christians in another Muslim- majority country - and part of the Malay world - Indonesia, have long referred to God as Allah in their Bahasa Indonesia bibles, publications and worship.
"We have been using the word Allah for generations without any problem," said Catholic activist and chairman of the Christian Communication Forum of Jakarta, Mr Theo Bella.
Few moderate voices
IT IS clear that the real victim in this battle over the word Allah is inter-faith relations. This is unfortunate as both Islam and Christianity share many similarities, with Christians and Jews being referred to as people of the book.
With the Allah row gaining momentum, religious leaders from both sides should bear responsibility.
The absence of moderate voices has created a vacuum readily filled by the likes of Malay right-wing group Perkasa and Islamist group Pembela which have little tolerance for minorities.
The case will now go to the Federal Court, the highest in Malaysia. However, the verdict - a win for the Church or the government - is immaterial. Either way, the ultimate effect may be damage to communal ties.
There is a need to heal the inter-faith wounds inflicted by the battle over the word Allah. This requires the mobilisation, not only of religious, but also political leaders, to bring back the goodwill and harmony lost during the row. Unfortunately, there are limited options available. Malaysia's court system and the court of public opinion are not the best forums in which to resolve sensitive issues.
ONE possibility worthy of serious consideration is to revive inter-faith dialogues during which all issues, including the word Allah and religious conversion, can be thrashed out behind closed doors.
This idea was stillborn during the premiership of Tun Abdullah Badawi because of the opposition of Muslim clerics who associated inter-faith sessions with support for pluralism.
To the clerics, such a concept would place Islam on a par with other faiths and would undermine its constitutional position in the country.
But his successor, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, resurrected the inter-faith idea in April 2010 when racial and religious issues were at their peak. The committee, however, has not been active since the appointment of its members in February 2011.
Some sort of inter-faith mechanism is necessary to ease tensions. But Prime Minister Najib also has to tread carefully by ensuring that any discussions remain behind closed doors.
And when agreement is reached on contentious issues, religious leaders on both sides have to come out in support of it. Otherwise, controversies over issues such as the use of the word Allah will continue to fester.
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