Muslim groups slam Anwar government for dropping appeal on the use of ‘Allah’

The dispute highlights the delicate inter-ethnic balance the unity government of disparate parties must maintain, especially ahead of crucial state polls expected in July.

Shannon Teoh

Shannon Teoh

The Straits Times


The Anwar Ibrahim administration dropped an appeal in a decades-long battle over whether non-Muslims can use the word “Allah” to refer to God. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

May 17, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – The Anwar Ibrahim administration’s decision to drop an appeal in a decades-long battle over whether non-Muslims can use the word “Allah” to refer to God has sparked a furious response from Islamic groups, including the two largest Muslim political parties in Malaysia.

The dispute highlights the delicate inter-ethnic balance the unity government of disparate parties must maintain, especially ahead of crucial state polls in Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Penang, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah expected in July.

The appeal was filed against a 2021 High Court verdict, which allowed “Allah”, and other religious words in Arabic, to be used by non-Muslims in publications for educational purposes, when the current opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN) was in power.

But Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail clarified on Tuesday that the decision was due to a defective administrative order issued by the Home Ministry 37 years ago.

“The Kuala Lumpur High Court’s decision was made based on a civil and administrative approach… not from a theological aspect or anything involving the use of the word ‘Allah’,” Datuk Seri Saifuddin, who is also chief secretary of Prime Minister Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, told reporters.

He added that the Home Ministry is in the process of formulating a “comprehensive directive” on the use of the words “Allah”, “Baitullah”, “Solat”, and “Kaabah” in order to be in line with the “interests of the multiracial and multi-religious community in Malaysia”.

The notice to withdraw the appeal – which was filed by the Attorney-General’s Chambers on April 18 but came to light only this week – has been panned by PN and Islamic civil society groups.

“We are of the view the move… can affect the harmony of the multi-ethnic and religious community in this country,” said Syariah Lawyers Association of Malaysia president Musa Awang.

Expressing disappointment, Mr Musa called on the government to offer a full explanation, as “it directly affects the interest of Muslims” in Malaysia.

Justice Nor Bee Ariffin, now a Court of Appeal judge, had ruled in March 2021 that a 1986 Home Ministry directive prohibiting the use of the words “Allah”, “Kaabah” (Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca), “Baitullah” (House of God), and “solat” (prayer) by non-Muslims was illegal and unconstitutional.

The court action taken by Ms Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Melanau aboriginal from the eastern state of Sarawak, began after eight CDs that the Christian woman obtained from Indonesia were seized by Customs officers at the airport in 2008 as the content contained the word “Allah”.

Even though the Kuala Lumpur High Court decided on the matter on the basis of the federal Constitution’s safeguards on freedom of religion and the Home Minister’s lack of power to enact such a ban, Datuk Seri Anwar insisted on Tuesday evening that “this (ruling) is specifically for Sarawak” and is not applicable to other states.

Umno information chief Azalina Othman Said, the de facto law minister in the Anwar administration, on Tuesday insisted “more in-depth research” was needed, and said ministers from the party would raise the issue in Cabinet on Wednesday.

Her statement reflects the importance of religious issues ahead of the state polls involving about half of Malaysia’s Muslim majority electorate. The elections are widely viewed as a referendum on Mr Anwar’s PH-led government, which also counts a host of parties from the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak as members.

PH will need the continued support of the lion’s share of non-Malay Muslim voters, as doubts remain over whether key ruling partner Umno can staunch the flow of Malay voters to the opposition PN, as seen in November’s general election.

PN’s two main components, former premier Muhyiddin Yassin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) – the largest single party in Parliament – accused the government of failing to safeguard Islam. “Is the government under Anwar Ibrahim encouraging pluralism that will threaten the sanctity of Islam?” asked Bersatu youth information chief Ashraf Mustaqim Badrul.

PAS deputy youth chief Afnan Hamimi Taib claimed the ruling parties were “desperately trying to win support from non-Muslims ahead of the state polls”, but were “apathetic towards the sensitivities of Muslims in Malaysia”.

The High Court judgment had quashed a three-decade government ban on Christians using the word “Allah” and the three other words in their religious publications, ruling that “there is no such power to restrict religious freedom under Article 11. Religious freedom is absolutely protected even in times of threat to public order”.

Ms Bill’s legal challenge, which began 15 years ago, also coincided with other court cases involving the use of “Allah”, although Catholic weekly The Herald was eventually denied in 2013 of overturning the Home Ministry ban on using the word.

At the height of both trials, right-wing groups in Malaysia protested against the rights of non-Muslims using the word “Allah”. Amid controversy over the issue, 11 churches and five mosques were firebombed or vandalised in 2010.

Christian Malaysians argue that they have used the word “Allah” to denote God for centuries in their own religious practice. Christians make up a substantial population of the two Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, where most congregations use the Malay language.

Some Sarawakian activists and lawmakers have expressed support for dropping the appeal.

However, some Muslim leaders have argued that allowing Christians to use the word “Allah” could lead to public unrest and confusion. The word, they say, is largely perceived by Malaysia’s Muslim community as referring exclusively to the Islamic God.

Christianity, the third-largest religion in Malaysia, is practised by 13 per cent of the population. Muslims comprise nearly two-thirds of the population of 33 million.

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