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A Catholic newspaper in Malaysia has been prohibited from using the Arabic word for God, Allah, in print. It’s taking the case to court.
BY SIMON ROUGHNEENREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — It seems
that anyone in Malaysia can refer to God as Allah — as long as
you are Muslim.
a Church-run weekly newspaper in the capital of Kuala Lumpur, was warned by the
government at the start of 2009 that it must stop using Allah
when referring to God in its Malay-language edition or risk closure.
However, in its Jan. 24 edition, the
Catholic newspaper did just that. The newspaper filed a motion with the
country’s High Court and feels no compunction to follow the government’s
directive prior to a court ruling
Jesuit Father Lawrence Andrew, the
editor of The Herald, said, “Leave
it to the High Court to decide what it has been asked to do. The
government has no jurisdiction on imposing their prohibition on us while the
case is still pending in the court.”
Father Lawrence said the word Allah,
which predates the formation of Islam, is an Arabic term for God and that the
problems raised by the proscription might go beyond merely publishing a Malay
edition of the newspaper.
“The word Allah
is used in our Eucharistic prayers, other devotional prayers and literature,
and also in the Bible,” he said.
Arabic religious terms came to
Malaysia around the same time as Islamic traders brought the Muslim religion
with them to southeast Asia in the 13th century. A little more than 60% of the
Southeast Asian country is Muslim.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry had initially
ordered The Herald to stop printing its Malay
edition for violating a 2007 ban on the use of the word Allah,
except to refer to the Muslim God. The government said using the word could
confuse Muslims, even though the newspaper is read almost exclusively by
“If they stop printing the word Allah,
they can publish anytime,” official Che Din told The Associated Press last
month. “You can use another word. It’s permissible for us.”
Father Lawrence said, however, that
the state had told The Herald the use of
the term constituted a threat to national security.
“Since 2006 we have been receiving a
second wave of reminders and warning letters to the fact that we have been
violating certain regulations that pertain to the security of the nation. In other
words, we are posing as a threat to the security to the nation,” he said.
The ruling came after a tumultuous
couple of years in Malaysian politics and society. The country has in the past
prided itself on having a pluralistic, multi-religious society, with good
interfaith relations between Muslims, minority Christians, Buddhists and
Islam, however, is the official
religion, and the constitution states that all Malays are by definition Muslim.
Freedom of religion is mandated in the same document, however, as Ooi Kee Beng
of the Institute for South East Asian Studies in Singapore explained.
“In Article 3 of the Constitution,
it is clearly stated that although Islam is the religion of the federation,
‘other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the
federation,’” he said, adding that peace and harmony would be meaningless if it
does not suggest free flow of information and discussions within a religious
community, at the very least ... and in any language.”
Nina Shea, a commissioner of
the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said “Malaysia has
been considered by religious freedom experts as part of the broad category of
countries that are “partly free,” on par with Mexico or Russia.
She said this new ban, together with
other developments, requires reevaluation. Some of Malaysia’s most restrictive
states have long banned non-Muslims from using certain Muslim and Arabic words.
The new ruling indicates a worrisome trend downward for the national government.
Shea said this decision comes on top
of the government practice of charging as “deviants” dozens of Muslim groups,
including Shiite and mystic Sufi groups, and detaining at “rehabilitation”
centers “both such so-called ‘deviant’ Muslims and converts from Islam.”
However, Beng said he does not see
the ruling as “being specifically aimed at Christians as such, but as the
latest case in a growing number of incidents of bureaucratic Islam going out of
hand. There have been many cases where the issues are not policies or legal
matters, but actions taken by bureaucrats with dubious ideas about governance
and who wish to believe that the government is in reality, and in silence,
pushing for extreme Islamization in the long run.”
This long-term governmental stance
might have short-term implications — and definitely has recent origins. Race
riots in 1969 left more than 1,000 Chinese Malaysians dead, and in the
aftermath, the politically-dominant Malays instituted the New Economic Policy,
which was intended as an affirmative-action type system to improve the economic
well-being of Malays, by giving them preferential access to education, business
grants and the like.
In recent years, however, Chinese
and Indian Malaysians — the latter mainly Tamils imported as inexpensive labor
during British rule — have argued that economic policy is long past its sell-by
date, with Malays already attaining the social and economic benchmarks set
under the deal.
Malaysia has been governed by a
multi-party, multiethnic coalition called the Barisan National since the
country’s independence in 1957.
That coalition, however, has been
dominated by the United National Malays Organization (UMNO), home of Mohamed
Mahathir, the infamous lecturer of the West on the merit of “Asian values.”
In elections held in March 2007,
Barisan lost its filibuster-proof majority in Parliament for the first time,
with votes shed to a three-party opposition comprising a pan-ethnic but
Malay-led coalition. This grouping consists of a party fronted by Anwar
Ibrahim, an estranged protégé of Mahathir, a secular Chinese party and the
Islamic fundamentalist PAS Party.
It’s still unclear whether Barisan’s
party is in immediate danger of losing to the more volatile PAS. Or it might be
nothing more than what Bridget Welsh, associate professor of Southeast Asia
studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns
Hopkins University, described as “another wake-up call for the Malay party to
reform, as it is losing the legitimacy to represent the Malay community, since
most opposition gains among Malay voters.”
However, Barisan remains in power,
and with no elections until 2013, he may try once more to undercut PAS by
denigrating Christians and other religious minorities in Malaysia.
Simon Roughneen is
based in Singapore.