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Malaysia: Highest Court Declines to Overturn Ban on Use of Word “Allah” by Non-Muslims

(June 30, 2014) On June 23, 2014, the Federal Court of Malaysia turned down an appeal to hear a case challenging the country’s prohibition against the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims to refer to God. The ban, which had been overturned by a December 31, 2009, Kuala Lumpur High Court decision after having been instituted in 2007, was upheld by the Court of Appeal on October 14, 2013. (William Hibbitts, Malaysia Top Court Refuses to Overturn Ban on Non-Muslims Using ‘Allah,’ PAPER CHASE (June 23, 2014); Church Appoints Murphy Pakiam as Administrator as KL Awaits New Archbishop, THE MALAYSIAN INSIDER (Dec. 21, 2013); Kelly Buchanan, Malaysia: Court Rules Catholic Magazine Can Use the Word “Allah”, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Jan. 5, 2010), Menteri Dalam Negeri v Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Civil Appeal No. W-01-1-2010 (Oct. 14, 2013), The Equal Rights Trust website .)

The basis for the case was the Malaysian Home Ministry’s 2007 warning to The Herald, a weekly Catholic newspaper in Malaysia, that its publishing permit would be revoked unless it stopped using the word “Allah” in its Malay-language edition. Then-Archbishop Murphy Pakiam subsequently initiated the court action against the government ban. (Hibbits, supra; Church Appoints Murphy Pakiam as Administrator as KL Awaits New Archbishop, supra.)

In response to the 2013 Court of Appeal decision, the Archbishop had questioned the three Appeal Court judges’ conclusion “that the word Allah was ‘not the essential or integral part of the religion of Christianity.'” (Church Appoints Murphy Pakiam as Administrator as KL Awaits New Archbishop, supra.) He stated that the word Allah has for centuries been the Bahasa Malaysia translation and the Arabic equivalent of the one God, and “to conclude that the word Allah is not essential to the Christian faith would be a grave denial of the fundamental right of the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christian community to use this word in prayer, worship services, prayer books, the Alkitab [the Malay bible] and other publications. This would be tantamount to signalling a form of persecution.” (Id.; for an explanation of “Alkitab,” see, for example, About the Name, Al-Kitab Scripture Research Institute website (last visited June 30, 2014).)

Nevertheless, according to Federal Court Chief Justice Arifin Zakaria, the seven-judge panel of the Court of Appeal “applied the correct test, and it is not open for us to interfere.” (Malaysia’s Highest Court Backs a Ban on Allah in Christian Bibles, GUARDIAN (June 23, 2014).)

The prolonged legal battle has reportedly increased religious tensions in Malaysia. While minority groups are concerned about a threat to their rights due to rising Islamization of the country, Muslim groups have been angered by what they view as Christians’ overstepping of religious boundaries. (Id.)

Ibrahim Ali, leader of the Muslim rights group Perkasa, stated, “I hope the issue will be put to rest … . We must defend ‘Allah’ because this is our religious obligation. I hope other communities, including Christians, understand this.” (Id.) However, The Herald‘s editor, Father Lawrence Andrew, expressed great disappointment in the ruling, noting that it “didn’t touch on the fundamental rights of minorities.” (Id.; see also Constance Johnson, Malaysia: Court Decision on Use of Word “Allah” by Non-Muslims, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Oct. 25, 2013).)

It was reported that after the issuance of the Court ruling, the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement to the effect that the decision would only affect The Herald. The Attorney-General pointed out, moreover, that “authorities in Selangor [State] had erred in the seizure of Malay-language bibles [in January 2014] and … that the action taken by the [Selangor] state religious council was unwarranted.” (Nile Bowie, Malaysia’s ‘Allah’ Verdict & the Rising Far Right, RT (June 30, 2014); Federal Court Decision on Allah Only for Herald, Says Putrajaya, MALAYSIAN INSIDER (June 23, 2014); Lee Shi-Ian, A-G Says Jais Erred in Seizing Bibles, Orders Case Closed, MALAYSIAN INSIDER (June 11, 2014).)

However, the Selangor religious council is said to refuse to comply with the central authorities’ position and indicated that it would continue to seize Malay-language bibles containing the word “Allah.” The council has also threatened to arrest anyone found distributing the bibles. (Bowie, supra.)