PETALING JAYA, 26 Feb 2009: The government has gazetted a ruling that prohibits Christian publications from using the word “Allah”, unless they carry the disclaimer “For Christianity” on their front covers.
While the ruling, published in the Government Gazette on 16 Feb, allows publications like the Catholic weekly Herald to continue using the word in its Bahasa Malaysia segment, it also raises other implications. Among them are how this would affect imported Christian publications which have the word “Allah”, and publications of other faiths — like Sikhism — which also use the word.
According to the Government Gazette, under the section Internal Security (Prohibition On Use of Specific Words on Document and Publication) Order 2009, the Home Ministry has ordered that “any document and publication relating to Christianity containing the words ‘Allah’, ‘Kaabah’, ‘Baitullah’, and ‘Solat’ are prohibited”.
This is unless the words “For Christianity” are printed on the front cover of the publication “in font type Arial of size 16 in bold”.
The order was signed by Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, who is empowered to make the ruling under Section 22 (1)(c) of the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA).
“It comes to us as a blessing in disguise,” Herald editor Fr Lawrence Andrew told The Nut Graph, in a telephone interview.
“It gives us the freedom to use the word ‘Allah’, provided that we print a warning on our front page — and we’ve done that in our 1st March issue,” said Andrew, who received a copy of the gazetted ruling.
Herald has been involved in a tussle with the Home Ministry, most recently since January 2009. Following the ministry’s ban on its use of the word “Allah”, the Catholic weekly has sought a court order to challenge the government’s decision. The High Court hearing of the judicial review is scheduled for tomorrow.
The word “Allah” has been used by Malaysian Christians and in Malay-language translations of the Bible since before independence, Andrew said. “Before the British, the church in the region had prayer books and doctrines in the Malay language,” he explained.
However, Andrew noted that the latest order was “first and foremost a prohibition”. He characterised the regulation as more akin to an exemption, rather than a lift of the ban on the use of the word “Allah”. “Exemptions can be withdrawn,” he said.
Andrew also said that this new regulation may have stifling effects on other Christian periodicals and reading material for Malay-speaking Christians.
“What about other publications? We are a universal church. Our reading material comes from all over the world,” he said.
He added that many Malay-language publications related to Christianity are imported from Indonesia, where no such prohibitions exist.
The newly gazetted order makes “the printing, publication, sale, issue, circulation and possession” of documents related to Christianity, using any of the four words and without a front-page warning, a breach of the law.
“On the one hand, it is good that the government appears to be recognising another religion’s right [to use the word 'Allah'],” said Christian human rights lawyer Andrew Khoo.
However, Khoo noted some serious concerns with the new regulation. “This suddenly makes the possession of such documents and publications a breach of the order,” he said, adding that it made individuals possessing material not in compliance with the order henceforth liable for penalty under the ISA.
Khoo also pointed out that the Christian community had been specifically singled out in the new ruling.
“Does this mean there are different standards for different religions [other than Islam]?” Khoo asked, noting that Sikhism also uses the term “Allah” to refer to God.
“If the word ‘Allah’ has been banned for use by non-Muslims, what’s going to happen to the Sikhs and the practice of their religion?” Malaysian Gurdwara Council head Harcharan Singh was quoted as saying in a Malaysiakini report last year. Harcharan noted that the word “Allah” was used in Sikhism’s main holy scripture.
Khoo cautioned that such disparities may sow more discord and disunity, and work against the creation of a positive environment where individuals are able to exercise their right to profess, practice and propagate their religion.
This freedom is provided for under Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.
He said it was questionable whether the new regulation was constitutional. “It should be challenged in court,” he said.
K Shanmuga, a lawyer involved in religious freedom cases, pointed out that the ISA’s constitutional mandate did not empower it to restrict religious faith.
“The ISA is provided for by Articles 149 and 150 of the Constitution. While these allow for a lot of restrictions, neither allows restrictions on religious freedom,” he said.
Shanmuga explained that it was up to individual states to decide to legislate restrictions on the propagation of other religions among Muslims. While 10 states have enacted such laws, Sabah, Sarawak, Penang and the Federal Territories have not.
Therefore, constraints on religious freedom are outside the jurisdiction of the Home Ministry.
“The Home Minister has no power to restrict Christians from propagating their faith,” Shanmuga said.
Syed Hamid issued the order under Section 22 (1)(c) of the ISA, which allows the minister to restrict publications “calculated or likely to lead to a breach of the peace, or to promote feelings of hostility between different races or classes”.
“I don’t know what the Home Minister has seen, but I can’t see myself how [such publications are] likely to cause such a breach of the peace,” Shanmuga said.