Malaysia’s top court dismissed a final bid by the Catholic church to use the word “Allah” in its newspaper, highlighting a debate on non-Muslims using the word in a climate of rising religious tensions.
The Federal Court will not review the case because there was no procedural unfairness when it ruled in June that the weekly Herald Malaysia newspaper could not refer to God in that way, Judge Abdull Hamid Embong said in a unanimous verdict handed down by a panel of five judges Wednesday in Putrajaya, outside of Kuala Lumpur.
“The decision made today is very disappointing,” Father Lawrence Andrew, founding editor of the Herald, told reporters Wednesday. “But we respect the federal constitution and only want peace and harmony for this country, that we love very much. Therefore, we hope the rights and faith of the minorities in this country will not be oppressed.”
While the ruling only applies to one newspaper, it risks creating friction over religious rights and ethnic tolerance in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation that has a sizable Chinese and Indian minority. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s party, which has ruled since independence in 1957, has brought in policies to shore up support with its ethnic Malay Muslim base since its worst-ever showing in the 2013 election.
“A decision that denies Christians the right to practice their faith in the national language is a sign of intolerance and extremism in Malaysia and a denial of basic religious freedom,” said Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies at the National Taiwan University. “There are real tensions over basic religious rights in Malaysia.”
Malaysia’s Home Ministry first banned the Herald’s use of the word “Allah” in its Malay-language editions in 2008, saying use of the Arabic word may offend Muslims who make up more than 60 percent of Malaysia’s 30 million population.
This prompted a long legal battle, with appeals and federal courts successively overturning a 2009 ruling by the high court. That initial ruling allowed the newspaper, which is mainly aimed at Christians in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, to use the word in prayer and worship, as Malay-speaking Christians in the area have done for centuries.
“Malaysia’s refusal to allow people of faith to call their God by whatever name they deem proper is a serious violation of both freedom of religion and expression, and signals a growing intolerance towards religious minorities in the country,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said by e-mail.
In recent years, Christians from Borneo have migrated to peninsula Malaysia in search of jobs, causing unease among Muslim clerics and government officials who say using the word “Allah” in Christian publications including Bibles is an attempt to proselytize.
“This is a political issue,” James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said by phone. “In Malaysia, Islam is politics, politics is Islam. You can’t separate the two.”
The weaker showing of the ruling coalition in the 2013 polls, where it lost the popular vote for the first time but kept a majority in parliament, gave rise to Islamic groups that have tapped into a feeling among some Muslims that they’re losing political power to voters of other faiths, Chin said.
Religious authorities, including the department of Islamic development within the prime minister’s office, in recent months have criticized young female Muslim fans of South Korean pop stars for kissing or hugging the singers during concerts, and investigated a social activist who organized a dog touching event for Muslims.
“What we are seeing in terms of increasing social conservatism in public life, the increasing pressure to put in place a more Islamic agenda in the public space is for the most part politically driven,” said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. “The government right now, looking from a political standpoint, is acting very defensively.”
The government’s stance extends beyond religion to civil liberties, he said, citing Najib’s support for a law that curbs free speech and has been used against opposition politicians. Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, Najib’s spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail and phone call seeking comment.
Najib said in November the Sedition Act would be preserved after feedback from the ruling party’s supporters, non-governmental groups and other Malaysians.
The law, which dates back to 1948 when Malaysia was under British rule, mandates jail sentences of at least three years for words deemed seditious, including those that “excite dissatisfaction” against the government. At least 14 people have been charged by police under sedition laws since 2013, including opposition lawmakers, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“His party is increasingly reliant upon right-wing messaging in order to retain relevancy with their base crowd, which is Malay Muslims,” Ibrahim said of Najib. “In the long term, while he may be able to retain some support among the Malays, it makes his job of trying to be a prime minister of all Malaysians increasingly difficult.”