Muslim protesters in Malaysia
Muslim protesters in Malaysia Reuters

A court of appeals in Malaysia has decreed that a Catholic newspaper cannot use the word “Allah” to describe God, overturning a 2009 lower court ruling that had outraged Muslims who form the majority in the Southeast Asian country. Citing that “Allah” is the exclusive domain of Islam, the court warned that its use by Christians and those of other faiths would cause “public disorder.” “Our common finding is that the usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity. We cannot find why the parties are so adamant on the usage of the word… The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community," said chief judge Justice Mohamed Apandi Ali in a statement. Apandi added that the "the welfare of an individual or group must yield to the interest of society at large.”

Christians, who account for more than 9 percent of the population (versus 61 percent for Muslims, 20 percent for Buddhists, 6 percent for Hindus), have used the world ‘Allah’ to refer to God for centuries, since it entered the Malay language from the Arabic. "If we are prohibited from using the word ‘Allah’ then we have to re-translate the whole Bible, if it comes to that," a Malaysian Christian woman named Ester Moiji complained to the BBC. Four years ago when the original court ruling permitted the universal use of ‘Allah,’ Islamic extremists responded by attacking churches and even some Muslim prayer halls.

At the center of the controversy lies The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, which originally sued the government after it declared that it could not use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to a Christian God in its Malay language edition. The Herald won that suit in 2009, leading to an appeal filed by the state (which has now won in court). Muslim groups fear that if Christians use the world ‘Allah’ freely, they would be encouraged to convert Muslims to their faith. "Allah is not a Malay word. If they [non-Muslims] say they want to use a Malay word they should use ‘Tuhan’ [Malay for ‘Lord’] instead of Allah," Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, a government attorney, told the BBC.

Bishop Datuk Thomas Tsen, president of the Sabah Council of Churches, blasted the ruling, saying his church "finds it completely unacceptable that what is common practice of the Church in Sabah and Sarawak [provinces] for hundreds of years and indeed for generations of Christians even before the very idea of Malaysia was conceived are now proscribed by administrative orders and laws." According to Star Online, Tsen said the word ‘Allah’ is an integral part of the Christian faith in Malaysia-speaking churches in Sabah and Sarawak. "Proscribing the use of the word ‘Allah’ would turn them [church members] into law-breakers in the very land which they are the sons of the soil,” Tsen added.

Reverend Lawrence Andrew, the editor of The Herald, said he will appeal the latest decision. "It is a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities," he said. "[The] Malay language is a language that has many borrowed words; Allah also is a borrowed word… God is an integral part of every religion."

BBC reported that some in Malaysia think that the ruling party of Prime Minister Najib Razak is using this court case to augment its Islamic credentials before the public. Ahead of the ruling, the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur issued a rare statement by expressing worries over the worsening climate of ethnic and religious tensions in the country. “The Catholic Church is gravely concerned by the recent statements made by individuals and organizations with regard to the use of the word ‘Allah’,” said Father Jestus Pereira, chancellor of the archdiocese. “Many of these statements are stoking racial sentiments and creating religious tension in our country.”

But it is not clear if the ban on the word “Allah” applies only to The Herald newspaper, or to all Christian churches, organizations and the Bahasa Malaysia Bible (the Bible written in the Malay language). Indeed the Star Online newspaper reported that the president of Christian Federation of Malaysia, Rev. Dr Eu Hong Seng, asserted that churches across the country would continue to call God ‘Allah.’ “We shall… continue to use the word Allah in our worship, liturgy, prayers and educational materials of the church,” he said in a statement.

Interestingly, in other Muslim-majority countries like neighboring Indonesia, Egypt and Syria, Christian minorities are free to call God by the Arabic word ‘Allah’ without repercussions.