A row over the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims highlights the need for Malaysia’s political forces to repackage their rhetoric in order win over a multi-ethnic population
The latest phase in an ongoing row between the Catholic Herald and the Malaysian authorities took its latest turn last week, with a high court ruling on Thursday effectively upholding the federal government’s 2007 ban on non-Muslim’s using the word “Allah” to denote God.
Print publications in Malaysia require an annually renewed permit and are subject to conditions set by the government, which has threatened to revoke the Herald’s permit if it continued to defy the 2007 ban.
Reacting to the announcement, Herald editor Fr Lawrence Andrew told ISN Security Watch, “The first and initial reaction was disappointment. But reading the State Enactment laws that were used to stall the stay order was itself a revelation […] to know that there are laws that the ordinary public is not aware of and that they seem to go against the Federal Constitution.
“We have to study the case. We are law abiding citizens. We will accept the rejection of our application and move on eagerly to July 7,” when the court will hear the newspaper’s original bid to review the 2007 proscription.
Politicization of religion
While the dispute does not by itself register as a major political issue in Malaysia, it helps shed light on the politicisation of religion in the multi-ethnic, multi-faith country. Around one-third of Malaysians are ethnic Chinese or Indian, and many of these are Christian.
Malaysia operates a dualistic legal system, comprising common law norms derived from the British colonial era, as well as aspects of sharia law. Malays – who at 60 percent of the total population are the majority and legally defined as Muslims – are subject to sharia law, while non-Muslims are technically exempt.
However, in an emotive and controversial 2007 case, a woman named Lina Joy was prevented from converting to Christianity by the federal court, who ruled that as she was originally Muslim it had no jurisdiction, referring the matter to the sharia courts.
Bridget Welsh, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, told ISN Security Watch that “Malaysian courts are taking away rights and promoting intolerance rather than respecting the multi-ethnic composition of the country.”
PAS is the main Islamist party in Malaysia and is part of the otherwise-secular Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) opposition coalition, which made historic inroads into the Barisan National (BN) governing conglomerate during and since March 2008 elections. That landmark vote saw the BN retain power, but lose its two-thirds majority for the first time since Malaysian independence. Since the elections, PK leader Anwar Ibrahim has sought, unsuccessfully, to bait BN lawmakers into crossing over in sufficient numbers to bring down the government.
BN is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is a secular party, along with the various entities in its unwieldy multi-ethnic BN coalition. However, as religious and socio-economic tensions have risen in recent years, UMNO has played its part in fomenting these with dagger-wielding speakers at party conventions pledging to defend Malay rights.
Dr Dkulkefly Ahmad, a PAS lawmaker for the Kuala Selangor constituency, told ISN Security Watch after a presentation last week at Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) that the Catholic Herald issue was “petty.”
Dr Ahmad began his talk by suggesting that the recent ruling on the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims is an attempt by UMNO to prove that it is more “Islamic” than PAS. When discussing the issue with ISN Security Watch afterwards, he cited Islamic verses backing Christians’ and Jews’ use of the word “Allah.”
Elsewhere in his presentation, Ahmad outlined PAS’ journey to a moderate form of political Islam, with the next crucial step being to find a way to package the PAS message for non-Muslim Malays.
Partly in deference to Malaysia’s ethno-religious political bazaar, Ahmad sought to draw a clear line in the sand between PAS and Islamist parties in neighboring Indonesia, as well Middle Eastern groups/movements such as the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, citing the need for Islamist politics to move beyond a “narrow legalism” to a more telling depiction of “the wisdom of Islamic jurisprudence,” which is “fundamentally about justice.”
Problematic to some, however, might be his reference to Tariq Ramadan and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, two prominent international Muslim thinkers, as inspiration. The latter is barred from entry into the US and UK for statements supporting terrorism, while Ramadan has been criticised for his alleged advocacy of taqiyya, which critics believe to be a method whereby politicised Muslims conceal their true intentions with moderate soundbites.
On his website, Ramadan describes taqiyya as “a concept mainly used by the Chi’a tradition. Actually it means that a Muslim can hide his/her religion when she/he is facing oppression. The classical Islamic tradition […] does not speak or promote taqiyya in anyway. The Islamic tradition, on the contrary, is teaching us to be transparent, honest, and just with all the people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”
Just as Ahmad told his Singapore audience that “PAS needs to understand the greater realities of Malaysia,” Fr Andrew told ISN Security Watch, “We live in a multicultural-religious environment and so we have work towards a friendship that will bring peace to all.”
Moderate views gaining ground
The PAS annual conference will take place from 3-8 June. With the two lead contenders divided over the issue, it is uncertain whether or not the type of Islam advocated by Dr Ahmad – who invoked Voltaire as much as any of his Islamic sources during his speech – will be adopted as policy by the one-million-member party.
The incumbent to the party’s number two post is Nasharudin Mat Isa who is regarded as conservative and favors close ties with UMNO, and by implication the latter’s often crude conflation of Malay and Muslim rights, rather than an all-out backing for Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition coalition. Opponent Datuk Husam Musa favors the line expounded by party colleague Ahmad.
Analysing developments, Welsh told ISN Security Watch: “The party is not cohesive and there are differences within the party. But, yes there is this very moderate view and it has gained ground since March 2008.”
PAS has gained some support among non-Muslims in the aftermath of the elections, seen by many as tactical voting in by-elections to ensure the UMNO or BN incumbent was defeated. The PAS Supporters Club numbers 50,000 non-Muslims, and one item on the conference agenda is whether to allow these associate members to graduate to full participation.
Hu Pang Chow is founder of the PAS Supporters Club for Non-Muslims. He was quoted in Malaysian media as saying the party must woo non-Muslim minorities if it wants to be a force to be reckoned with: “In this multi-racial country, if you focus on one race, you cannot win.”Show