Malaysian Court Strikes Down Ban

Posted on: 05/01/2010

Malaysia’s High Court Thursday ruled that local Roman Catholics can resume referring to God as Allah in Malay-language publications, in a decision that appeared to partially halt the steady Islamization of the majority-Muslim nation in recent years.

The court overturned a three-year-old government ban that prevented the Catholic Church from using the term Allah as a translation for God in its local-language publications. The Arabic word has been used by various faiths in this predominantly Muslim nation for centuries, and the Church argues that it is the only suitable translation for God in the Malay language.

The ban came alongside a spate of other religious disputes that have convinced many Malaysians that their country is adopting an increasingly politicized interpretation of Islam that could browbeat its substantial non-Muslim ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities and eventually turn off the international investors who helped develop the country’s vibrant economy.

In recent months, a Muslim Shariah Court sentenced a woman who ordered a beer in a hotel bar to be caned, while a group of Muslim men desecrated the proposed location of a Hindu temple by tossing a severed cow’s head onto the site as police stood aside. Political analysts say the country has become increasingly Islamist in its outlook over the past two decades, and Shariah law is now widely applied to the country’s Muslims, who make up around 60% of Malaysia’s population of 28 million people. Non-Muslims are governed by civil laws.

Thursday’s ruling by Judge Lau Bee Lan, however, suggests that some parts of the Malaysian establishment are beginning to push back against this steady Islamization of what had been one of the world’s most moderate outposts of the Muslim faith. Ms. Lau said Christians have a “constitutional right to use Allah,” but the government can appeal to a higher court where the ban can be reinstated.

Prosecutors said they are still deciding whether to appeal, but political analysts, including James Chin, a political science professor at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, expect the battle to continue in the appeals court.

Still, Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Malaysian Roman Catholic Church’s Herald newspaper described the decision as a “landmark case for our nation,” and said it upholds constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech and religion.

And there are signs that Malaysia’s political leaders also are keen to preserve the country’s religious freedoms. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in Singapore in November, Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government would resist efforts by Islamist hardliners to turn Malaysia becoming a more faith-based nation. “We are going to maintain what we are today- a moderate, Muslim state. There may be some incidents along the way that take place, but that should not be seen” as evidence of a radical shift, he said.

The Herald newspaper filed the lawsuit against the ban on the word Allah in 2007. The government banned non-Muslims from using the word in their literature, fearing it would confuse or mislead Muslims, and said that the term should be used exclusively by Muslims.

The ban hindered the Malay-language edition of the Herald, which is mostly read by indigenous tribes who converted to Catholicism and other forms of Christianity decades ago. It added to the grievances of the Malaysia’s religious minorities, who frequently say they are discriminated against by the Muslim-dominated government.

Earlier in 2009, the Malaysian government confiscated a shipment of 10,000 Bibles from Indonesia which shares a very similar language to Malaysia, because they used the word Allah.


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