Malaysian attempts at juggling local Islamic dictates against a desire by moderates and non-Muslims to forge a secular democratic society have often fallen flat, with the country winning too many comparisons with the likes of Pakistan.
Bans on rock concerts, enforcement of unwanted dress codes, a constitution that favors native Muslim Malays and censorship laws to appease Islamic hardliners haven’t helped those perceptions.
Such unwanted correlations were again made after a decision by the Malaysian Appeals Court to ban a local Catholic newspaper from using the word “Allah” as another word for “God,” despite its common usage in the Malay, English and European languages for centuries. Sikhs also use both words.
The decision overturned a 2009 lower court ruling amid a long-running court battle which has provided a glimpse of the separation of powers at work in Malaysia between church, state and the judiciary.
The push for a ban was steamrolled out of the Sharia Courts, which have no jurisdiction over non-Muslims, and into the civilian courts on the grounds that use of the word in the Catholic weekly newspaper The Herald might encourage Muslims to convert.
“It is our common finding that the usage of the name ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity,” chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali said in the ruling. “The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community.”
The decision takes Malaysia into territory where no other Muslim country has gone.
The Indonesians, Bruneians and Muslims in Central Asia – even those in the Islamic heartland of the Middle East – have never even considered the idea that two words for the one god that leads both Christianity and Islam should have a designated use according to faith.
It’s a far cry from the Malaysian Muslims who have claimed that their push to ban the word among non-Muslims was a jihad.
“They are allowed to use the word ‘Allah,’ also in our worship, prayers, we use the word ‘Allah’ without any difficulty, as much as in the Middle East,” Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of The Herald, told a regional broadcaster. He has vowed to appeal the decision in Malaysia’s High Court arguing a ban on the word in his Catholic publication was unconstitutional.
Two constitutional lawyers have also argued that the ban lacked common sense, while some politicians and academics have said the court ruling was “very disturbing.”
Additionally, the decision will harm Prime Minister Najib Razak – whose poor showing at the May elections has cast doubts over his leadership. He won despite losing the overall popular vote, thanks to gerrymandering. Non-Muslims, in particular Chinese, deserted the ruling Barisan Nasional in droves.
Najib’s position will become more vulnerable given the prominence of 2.8 million Christian votes in the states of Sabah and Sarawak. The court’s decision might force his government to consider legislation simply to protect the traditional use of language, and guard against zealots seeking to impose their brand of belief on others.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.