Missed opportunity to defend religious freedom

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Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, CPI

News that the Federal Court refused to grant leave to hear the appeal by the Archbishop Emeritus of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur in the ‘Allah’ case did not come as a surprise. As many Malaysians expected, the judges by a majority decision of four to three predictably upheld the earlier Court of Appeal’s decision to ban the use of the word in the Catholic weekly, The Herald.

In the extensive media coverage given to the decision, much attention has been given to the reasoning provided by each of the judges, especially the three dissenting judges. Reading through the reports and analysis, what should be of utmost concern is the failure of any of the judges to touch on the central issue that was placed before them and which they circumvented – that of the threat to the freedom of religion that was stark and explicit in the case before them.

None of the seven judges – not even the dissenting three – found it necessary to cut through the political and legal thicket set up by the government to diminish religious freedom or to state the case against any diminishment of that freedom. None of them found it important to articulate or restate the need for fidelity and unfailing adherence to the core principle of religious freedom enshrined in our secular constitution.

In retrospect, the position taken by all the seven judges – including the dissenting – should raise alarm bells that professional independence and competency has been so compromised in our judicial system that we cannot expect redress from our courts when it comes to defending our fundamental liberties.

But what are the larger implications of this court decision?

If Umno leaders and hardline Muslim organizations such as Perkasa, Isma and others are celebrating this decision as a ‘victory’ they should think again.

Firstly, they should reflect on the origin of the dispute over the word. The initial damage to the previously stable relationship between Muslim and Christian Catholics on this particular issue which flared up in 2009 can be traced to the political ambitions of one man, the then Home Affairs Minister; and the subsequent lack of resolve from the Barisan government, including the non-Muslim Ministers in the Cabinet.

Earlier, following court appearances and negotiations, the Catholic publication received permission to use the word ‘Allah’ as long as it stated on its masthead that The Herald was “For Christians only”.

Syed Hamid Albar, the then Minister, had even signed the order permitting the publication.

However, 12 days after the order was gazetted on February 16, 2009, he backpedalled and reinstated the ban on the Herald from using the word Allah. It has been postulated that with the looming Umno election in March, Syed Hamid who was vying for a Supreme Council position and wanting to be retained in the Cabinet, was engaged in a last ditch effort to revive his political fortune. The ‘Allah’ case clearly provided him the opportunity to demonstrate his strong Islamic credentials to Umno members.

Since then, Umno leaders, wannabe Malay and Islamic ‘heroes’, the vigilante Malay media, and a phalanx of newly pious and devout Muslims have jumped on the bandwagon to defend their faith and assuage their newly arisen anxiety that Islam is faced with attack from an alleged insidious enemy, bent on destroying their religion and converting their weaker Muslim brothers and sisters to another religion.

Why did the Home Minister and his Umno colleagues start this fire over a word which East Malaysian Christians have used for decades even before Sabah and Sarawak merged with Malaya in 1963; and which the great majority of Malay Muslims – until the use of the word was politicised and dragged into the public spotlight – had no concern or problem with? If the use of ‘Allah’ is in violation of syariah law, then surely the ulama, Umno, PAS and others would have objected to it much earlier and more vehemently.

How can an in-house religious magazine circulating within the Catholic community and using the word ‘Allah’ which was halal under previous Home Affairs Ministers suddenly become haram in 2009 on the eve of the Umno general assembly meeting? How can anyone take seriously the claim by Umno leaders and a small group of Muslim zealots that their faith alone has exclusive right to use the word ‘Allah’ in Malaysia, and that any other religion using it, is seeking to proselytize Muslims and disrupting peace and harmony?

Umno members and its proxies may not want to ask these crucial questions but the rest of the world has.