The Allah’ Issue in Perspective – Part 2


By Kee Thuan Chye

Yesterday, I looked at the ‘Allah’ issue from the time it started to what it has become today, and how we are now trapped in a web of confusion spun from diverse interpretations of the Court of Appeal’s decision on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by The Herald, as well as the “one-policy, two-countries” implication arising from Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 10-point solution.

In the midst of such confusion, how do we judge who is right – those who claim that ‘Allah’ is exclusive to Muslims or those who insist that it is their constitutional right to practise their religion the way they have been doing it for ages, including referring to God as ‘Allah’?

How do we deal with the rising fervour on both sides, Muslim and Christian, as they seek to defend what they think is right? With Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of The Herald, who said on December 27 that Christians would continue to use ‘Allah’ in all Selangor churches, and with the Solidariti Umat Islam Klang members who protested in public against his statement?

How do we deal with Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria’s demand for the arrest of the Malays who turned up at a church in Klang to show solidarity with Christians?

What about Perkasa Vice-President Zulkifli Noordin’s insistence that even the Malay-language Bible (Al-Kitab) must not contain the word ‘Allah’, and that churches in Sabah and Sarawak must heed the Court of Appeal’s verdict, in spite of the 10-point solution?

How do we deal with the call, escalated by the ‘Allah’ issue, made by Borneo’s Plight in Malaysia Foundation (Bopim) for Sabah and Sarawak to secede? Or the similarly worded warning by both Bolly Lapok, the Bishop of Kuching, and Bishop Thomas Tsen, President of the Sabah Council of Churches: “Proscribing the use of the word ‘Allah’ would instantly turn native Bumiputeras into law-breakers in the very land of which they are sons of the soil. This is not only abhorrent but wholly unacceptable.”?

What will all this fervour lead to? Should it be allowed to simmer indefinitely? What is the solution to the problem?

Former Attorney-General Abu Talib Othman proposes one. He suggests that the 1986 ministerial order – which bans all non-Muslim publications from using the words ‘solat’, ‘Kaabah’, ‘Baitullah’ and ‘Allah’ – be revoked. If this is done, the banning of the use of ‘Allah’ by The Herald will not be an issue any more. Following from that, one supposes, the Court of Appeal’s verdict will also become academic.

This sounds good, but the current home minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, has already come out to assert that the order will not be revoked. He has also insisted that The Herald cannot use the word ‘Allah’ even in East Malaysia. And going by the reactionary stance he has been adopting since taking over the ministry, he is not likely to budge. But even if by some miracle he does agree, the problem would be solved only for Sabah and Sarawak. What about Peninsular Malaysia?

In that regard, Abu Talib says “the use of the word must now be extended to the peninsula” so “we can live in a happy Malaysia”. But the prime minister has to be the one to make that happen. The question is: Would he dare? As it is, with so much tension building up over the issue, all Najib has done is maintain a deafening silence.

Besides, last November, in his Maal Hijrah address, he vowed that he would fight for the word ‘Allah’ to be exclusive to Muslims. Even though this contradicts his own 10-point solution. It proved that Najib is more interested in playing politics with the issue. He clearly presented the 10-point solution in 2011 out of political expediency, out of wanting to appease East Malaysians because he needs their votes. But as a result, the country is now caught in a tangle. And yet he has not come up with a plan to undo the tangle.

James Masing is right in blaming the leaders in the federal government for not daring to decide on a single set of laws that will be applied nationwide. He is also right in accusing them of making religious policies out of political expediency instead of religious principles.

To be sure, we can’t have two different sets of laws for the ‘Allah’ issue. As Masing says, “Malaysian leaders must decide once and for all which set of religious laws Malaysians must abide by. This way, Malaysians will have a clear choice on what to do. The law should be applicable to all, whether they live in Lubok Antu (in Sarawak), Pulau Penyu (Sabah) or Kuala Perlis.”

Former Cabinet minister Zaid Ibrahim offers another solution. He calls on Najib to “make an honest finding” as to whether the Christians consider the use of ‘Allah’ to be integral to their faith. If they do, he should convene a special meeting with the Malay Rulers at which they must discuss “with detachment and clarity” what brought about the state enactments made from 1988, which forbid the use of ‘Allah’ and more than 30 other Arabic words for the purpose of preventing the proselytization of Muslims.

Zaid is certain that the fear of Christians converting Muslims is at the root of it all, and that being so, “I don’t think [Christians] will mind if the Government were to set up a special task force to look into conversions”.

With this agreed to, Najib and the Malay Rulers “can make this point to Muslims: that in exchange for the use of the word ‘Allah’ by the Christians in their prayers, publications and the Malay Bible, Christians in turn will support the enactment of special laws and enforcement mechanisms to protect the Muslims from any conversion”.

At the same time, Najib and other authorities must urge Muslims to respect the beliefs of Christians. “If Christians say ‘Allah’ is integral to their Scriptures and their faith, then let’s accept that and move on.”

This proposal also sounds good, but will Muslims find it to be too much to take? Will it be acceptable to people like Ulama Muda Umno’s young ustaz Fathul Bari Mat Jayaha, who recently said “we wouldn’t want any calls saying that all religions are equal, in 50 years or 100 years to come.”?

Of course, no religion should ty to be more equal than any other, even if its followers form the majority of the population. If it does, it’s not about religion any more. It becomes politics. And Heaven knows (notice that I don’t say God or Allah) that politics has already interfered too much with religion in Malaysia.

It’s clear, for instance, that the ‘Allah’ issue stems more from politics than anything else. It stems from the politics of opportunism, of divisiveness, of expediency. So now, how about letting religion speak for itself instead?

On this note, let me reproduce what my good friend Azmi Sharom, a law lecturer, wrote in The Star on January 8: