Malaysian states’ bans complicate ‘Allah’ issue

(The Straits Times) Ten of Malaysia’s 13 states have laws banning the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims, and these could prove to be a formidable complication as the country tries to reach a final resolution on the matter.

These state enactments have added complexity to the simmering controversy as it is unclear if they would automatically be overruled if the federal government or the court were to allow Christians to use the word ‘Allah’.

Amending 10 state enactments could also be politically messy. And to add to the confusion, Penang, Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territories do not have such enactments.

“It’s a bit tricky,” senior lawyer Salehuddin Saidin told The Straits Times. ‘On the one hand, the court may allow ‘Allah’ to be used, but then we’ll have a conflicting situation where we have 10 state laws and … the order from the court.”

The ‘Allah’ controversy arose after the Herald, a Catholic newspaper, won permission from the High Court to use the word to denote God.

On New Year’s Eve, the High Court overturned the federal government’s ban on the word, but an appeal has since been filed with the Court of Appeal, and the ruling has been suspended.

Since then, the 10 state religious authorities have made public their respective enactments that list words and phrases prohibited for use in a context other than Islam. All the lists include the word ‘Allah’.

The enactments, all made to prevent proselytising to Muslims, were passed between 1980 and 2002.

The High Court, which allowed the word ‘Allah’ to be used by the Herald, did consider this issue.

In her judgment released last Friday, Justice Lau Bee Lan said these enactments cannot prohibit non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ within their own religion, as long as it is not used to proselytise to Muslims.

Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan said the implication was that these enactments, as far as the word ‘Allah’ is concerned, would be unconstitutional.

But he conceded that it was unclear as the Herald case did not address this point directly.

The suit was filed against the federal government’s ban on using the word ‘Allah’ and, as such, did not directly challenge the state enactments.

However, Salehuddin thinks that any move to permit non-Muslims to use the word will require these enactments to be amended, with the consent of the respective state rulers.

The enactments, he noted, were created based on powers given in the Federal Constitution to states to pass laws against proselytising among Muslims.

But Professor Shad Faruqi, a law lecturer from Universiti Teknologi Mara, believes that the enactments had breached those powers in the first place.

“It was an act of overreacting to fears. The law is too vague and broad,” he said.

He noted that if they were restricted to propagation or to instances such as statues of Jesus Christ being named ‘Allah’, then they could fall within the Constitution.

Given the complexities, opposition-held states which take a more liberal view on the use of the word ‘Allah’ have trodden cautiously.

According to Selangor MP Khalid Samad — who comes from the camp that believes the term ‘Allah’ is not exclusive to Islam — the state government did not want to run foul of the law.

“They don’t want to go against the law or run into problems with the royal house. I believe the state government is playing it by ear,” he told The Straits Times.

He also said the Selangor enactment was passed in 1988, before the state government changed hands in 2008, and that it was not carved in stone.

The Pakatan Rakyat state government has not taken an unequivocal stand on the issue although its component parties have.

Both Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Parti Islam SeMalaysia agree that ‘Allah’ is not an exclusive term.