A Malaysian appeals court upheld last week a government ban on the use of the word “Allah” to refer to God in non-Muslim faiths, overruling claims by Christians in the Muslim-majority nation that the restriction violates their religious rights.
The government originally banned Catholic publication The Herald from using Allah, which is the usual word for God in Malay language, in 2007. The Kuala Lumpur High Court then ruled in favor of the The Herald in 2009, leading to protest attacks on several churches and Sikh temples by radical Muslims.
But the chief judge of the appeals court said, “It is my judgment that the most possible and probable threat to Islam, in the context of this country, is the propagation of other religions to the followers of Islam,” according to The Economist.
Disappointed by the ruling, Lawrence Andrew, The Herald’s editor, said the newspaper plans to appeal in Malaysia’s Federal Court, the nation’s highest. He called it “a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities.”
While some outlets said the ruling only applied to The Herald, many Malaysian Christians thought differently. An article in The Herald said all Christian publications in the national language of Bahasa appear to be affected by the decision. The Christian Federation of Malaysia called for prayer, but were relieved the court decision did not seem to apply to the Al-Kitab, the Bahasa Malaysia Bible.
Christian groups in the East Malaysian regions of Sabah and Sarawak spoke out ahead of the court decision, calling a restriction on Christians’ use of the word Allah “abhorrent” and “unacceptable.” They said they would not stop using the word, The Herald reported.
“Everyone is assuming that this sets a precedent for everyone,” Ryan Morganof International Christian Concernsaid. “What makes this ruling especially absurd is that Christians have been using the arabic word ‘Allah’ to refer to God for over 400 years.” Morgan, ICC’s regional manager for Southeast Asia, explained that the original translation of the Bible into Malay used the word Allah for God. It is not new or unusual.
Scholars back up that claim and say Arabic Christians and Jews were using the term even before Islam existed. “Arabs used the word ‘Allah’ for the supreme being before the time of Muhammad,” Kenneth J. Thomas, a United Bible Societies translation consultant, told Time.
Malaysia’s Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu minorities have often complained that the government infringes on their constitutional right to practice religion freely, accusations the government denies. Christians are able to worship and conversion to Christianity from Islam is protected, but proselytization is illegal in the country, Morgan said. Christians must also be careful what they say about Islam.
Morgan is concerned that the recent ruling, taken in context with government attempts to spread fear of Christians, is part of a trend towards Islamic radicalism in Malaysia. He said it is important to bring attention to the issue before the country gets to the level of extremism seen in Middle East nations.