Allah’s a Bad Word … for a Catholic Newspaper in Malaysia.

February 15-21, 2009 Issue

It seems that anyone in Malaysia can refer to God as Allah — as long as you are Muslim.

The Herald, 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 Christians.

“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 Hindus.

Official Religion

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 re-evaluation. 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.

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