KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 26 — A legal ban on the non-Muslim use of “Allah” that is so far administrative could now force its way into the worship of Christians, as Selangor Islamic authorities seek out those they say are illegally using the word reserved for Muslims by state law.
The action could also further reveal problems with Malaysia’s dual legal system — criminal and civil law for all Malaysians and a syariah system that only applies to Muslims — in the Selangor Islamic Religious Department’s (Jais) attempt to regulate Christians’ use of the Arabic word for God.
“If it is by Jais, technically they don’t have authority over non-Muslims. In this case, it concerns non-Muslims, technically by law, they can’t compel non-Muslims (to co-operate),” civil liberties lawyer Eric Paulsen told The Malay Mail Online.
Paulsen was referring to Jais’ plan to track down a Christian group that allegedly used “Allah” at a private function in a Klang hotel, to the extent of demanding the hotel management provide surveillance videos to bolster its case ― despite not being empowered to do so.
Yesterday, news portal The Malaysian Insider quoted Jais deputy director Ahmad Zaki Arshad as saying that the department required the video recording as a photograph of the event alone was considered insufficient evidence.
But another civil liberties lawyer, Syahredzan Johan, told The Malay Mail Online that a provision under the Selangor Non-Islamic Religion (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988 may grant Jais jurisdiction in the case.
The 1988 state law, which was passed by the then Barisan Nasional government, prohibits non-Muslims from using 35 Arabic words and phrases in their faith, including “Allah”, “Nabi” (prophet), “Injil” (gospel) and “Insya’Allah” (God willing).
“Investigations for these offences would fall under the enactment, which provides that the Ruler can basically appoint these officers to investigate these offences, and they may be Jais officers,” said the lawyer.
According to Syahredzan, the provision would even allow Jais officers to compel non-Muslims to appear as witnesses and arrest them without warrant, but would still not give them authority to demand video or photographic evidence from the hotel.
The lawyer also conceded that while the enactment prohibited non-Muslims from using the word “Allah” regardless of location, he was unsure whether this would still apply in the absence of Muslims or proselytisation, such as in a closed-door Christian event.
Paulsen suggested, however, that police may be brought in should Jais hit a dead-end in its probe, even as he said this would be an exercise of police powers in bad faith.
“If the police are involved, the police may say they’re investigating under the Penal Code or Sedition Act... They might be abusing their power, but it is possible,” Paulsen said.
Paulsen said the applicable Malaysian laws were sufficiently vague as to allow the actions of the church group to be construed as sedition or even a threat to religious harmony, thereby allowing police involvement.
He pointed out to the case of bloggers Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee ― collectively known as Alvivi ― who were charged under Section 298A(1) of the Penal Code for stirring hostility between religions after they posted a mock Ramadan greeting that attracted complaints.
In an unsubstantiated report this week, Utusan Malaysia claimed that the International Full Gospel Fellowship held a closed-door function at an unnamed hotel in Klang, where the Christian group purportedly sang songs containing the word “Allah”.
The Umno-controlled Malay daily further reported that a board in the hotel hall informing of the gathering had featured the words: “International Full Gospel Fellowship: Keluarga Allah Satelit Nilai dan Satelit Puchong, ‘Dari dalam gelap akan terbit terang’”. The English translation reads: “God’s family, Nilai and Puchong satellites, ‘Light will shine strong from the darkness’”.
The tussle over “Allah” arose in 2008 when Catholic newspaper The Herald was barred by the Home Ministry from using the Arabic word. The Catholic Church had contested this in court and won a High Court decision in 2009 upholding its constitutional right to do so.
Putrajaya later appealed the decision and successfully overturned the earlier decision when the Court of Appeal ruled this October that “Allah” was not integral to the Christian faith.
Despite the ban, the effects have not intruded directly into the everyday worship of Christians; it has so far been limited to a prohibition against the Herald printing the word, and the seizure of Christian religious materials, including the Al-Kitab Malay-language bibles and compact discs that contain the word “Allah”.
The shipments of the Al-Kitab were subsequently released but the compact discs have yet to be returned to its owner who has filed a lawsuit against the government.
The Catholic Church has since appealed to the country’s top court for clarity on the religious row that has drawn deep lines between Malaysia’s non-Muslim minorities and its 60 per cent Muslim population.