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The problem with the “Allah” ban

IT is bewildering that a gazette on such a significant matter of public interest as the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims was issued and then rescinded just 24 hours after it was announced.

Did not Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar spot the mistake in the ruling, which he signed? The gazette, it must be noted, was published on 16 Feb but was only announced on 26 Feb.

The fiasco illustrates how citizens can wake up one morning to find themselves subject to new laws their legislators in Parliament had little chance to debate — and the very next day, to find the laws have changed, again without debate.

Such arbitrariness in a process as important as making laws that affect citizens should be questioned. Indeed, what is a gazette? What powers are invested in the executive branch of government to pass gazettes, and is there room for dissent?

What is a gazette?


Nazri Aziz
“The passing of laws that do not go through Parliament for approval, but become law after being published in the Government Gazette, is an administrative way of making laws,” explains Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz.

“When we gazette that such and such words cannot be used (for example in the case of ‘Allah’), it carries the enforcement of the law with it,” he says in an interview in Parliament.

One recent example of a law that was enforced administratively is the rear seat belt ruling that took effect on 1 Jan 2009 under the Road Transport Act 1987.

The British Westminster parliamentary system allows for supplementary laws to be passed in this manner, provided that they are made under a specific Act. The Act itself is what has to be debated in Parliament, explains lawyer Sharmila Sekaran.

The parties involved in passing laws administratively are the relevant minister, the civil servants who draft the ruling, and the ministry’s legal adviser or the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which would be consulted in some cases.

“Practically, we must bear in mind that often, the minister has little real working knowledge in a particular area and thus will rely on advisers or civil servants,” Sharmila says of the work that goes into drafting a law.

Room for dissent?

If citizens disagree with a law that has been passed administratively, or even with laws that have gone through Parliament, a judicial review is the right way to challenge it.

“But, the party filing for judicial review must be directly affected by the law. It cannot be someone with a vague or indirect interest,” Sharmila tells The Nut Graph.

This is why the Islamic religious councils of several states as well as the Malaysian Gurdwaras Council representing the Sikh community have all filed to be intervening parties in the Herald suit. The suit challenges the government’s ban of the use of “Allah” by non-Muslim groups.

Nazri says Members of Parliament can still raise motions to challenge a law after it has been passed. “Laws can always be amended, they are not cast in stone. So there is still room for public input and feedback.”

Doing it wrong

The problem, however, is that the reality is far less ideal than what Nazri posits.

For example, the problem with the Home Ministry’s initial ruling to allow conditional use of “Allah” was that it was an order placed under the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960. The order was cited as “Internal Security (Prohibition on Use of Specific Words on Document and Publication) Order 2009″.

And the danger with the ISA is that is has an ouster clause: Section 8B, which states that a minister’s decision is final and cannot be challenged.

“This is undemocratic. All decisions by an individual should be challengeable by an unbiased party, for example, the courts,” says Sharmila, who is also National Human Rights Society (Hakam) secretary-general.

She also argues that the government cannot just make a law and “shove it under somewhere”.

“This (the order on the ‘Allah’ issue) is not an appropriate law to be made under the ISA. You must look at what the entire Act is out to achieve, and then make supplementary laws to support the general aim of the Act,” Sharmila says.

Because Section 8(1) of the ISA allows for detention without trial on persons who are deemed a threat to national security, the Home Ministry’s move to place the ruling under the ISA effectively turned a religious matter into a national security issue.

Though the Act does not specifically touch on religious faith as a potential threat, it’s easy to see the Home Ministry’s line of thinking. It views the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims as prejudicial to national security.

In addition, if the prohibition of “Allah” was because of fears that Christian groups were proselytising to Muslims, the ISA is still not the right law to use. Lawyer K Shanmuga has argued before that it is up to the individual states and federal territories, and not the Home Ministry, to enact laws restricting the propagation of other religions among Muslims.

Pressure

Additionally, when Syed Hamid rescinded the gazette on the conditional use of the word “Allah”, did the “mistake” only become apparent after the Malaysian Islamic Da’wah Foundation protested? After all, Syed Hamid did announce the rescinding in response to the foundation’s protests.

“Decisions such as the one gazetted (allowing conditional use of the word by Christian publications) should have been carefully and comprehensively thought out before being issued … Unsurprisingly, pressure was brought to bear upon the minister and his ministry.

“The problem with incompetent or careless decision-making is that when attacked, it cannot be defended and hence becomes a ‘mistake’ which has to be reversed or rescinded,” notes Sharmila.

Interference

The enactment of the ruling can also be inferred as an act of interference with the judiciary. Herald has a judicial review pending against the government’s 2008 decision to ban the word from the Catholic weekly’s Bahasa Malaysia edition.

By issuing the ruling, what kind of message was the government trying to send the courts? That there is no room for legal, historical, linguistic, and textual arguments to decide whether or not “Allah” can be justifiably used by Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians?

In essence, the government had already decided for the court — yes, it’s okay to use “Allah”, but only because the executive says so. When instead, what is needed is a judicial decision based on facts.

For without factual basis and cogent arguments, the executive could, for its convenience, withdraw the ruling or impose further restrictions.

Fatwa for non-Muslims?

Perhaps, realising this, the government is now using other ways to restrict the use of “Allah”. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi recently said that all states and federal territories would soon institute their own gazette prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word.

Currently, Johor, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Perlis and Selangor have already included the ruling as part of their state Islamic enactments. Interestingly, the state enactments are based on an earlier fatwa prohibiting the use of “Allah” and three other words.

The question that arises is how can a fatwa be imposed on non-Muslims? Also, isn’t enacting the fatwa as a gazette jumping the gun when the court has not completed its hearing of the Herald case?


Tunku Abdul Aziz (Source:
mypolitician.com.my)
Few people seem to be publicly raising these questions, perhaps due to the “sensitive” nature of the issue. But DAP deputy chairperson Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim did recently say it was unfair for the minister to force all states to gazette the ban without waiting for the court’s decision.

In the meantime, the way the government has gone about trying to impose the ban on the use of “Allah” remains deeply problematic, not just from a rights but also a procedures perspective. And that can only be an indictment of the government of the day.

See also: Handling of “Allah” usage disappointing

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18 Responses to “The problem with the “Allah” ban”

  1. ken liew says:

    So, when some non-Muslims are singing some state anthems … will this be against this law? And if not, they will not be respecting the state anthem … Supreme heads you win, tails you lose factor.

  2. Abd Rizieq says:

    So they are going to arrest Agnes Monica under ISA also?

    http://www.indonesiamatters.com/4343/allah-peduli/

  3. zzz says:

    This is brilliant news.

    The reason is it will mean that no one will ever be able to convert to Islam as technically they will need to say the word to make the oath.

  4. pak yeh says:

    There is no right or wrong decision on this matter.

  5. tengku mohd faizal says:

    Religion is best learnt in its original form. Christian should learn and recite the Bible in Aramaic, Muslims should learn and recite the Quran in Arabic, just like the Jewish recite the Torah in Hebrew. Unless, of course, someone has a hidden agenda to learn religion not from its original form. If it’s not ORIGINAL then it must be a FALSE religion.

  6. Lay Person says:

    There seems to be a veiled attempt to increasingly curb the activities of all non-Islamic religions by the government. All sorts of excuses are given, for Christians, they claim there is an attempt to proselytise to Muslims, for Hindus they say Indian priests have no work permits, for the Orang Asli they say lands are not gazetted as non-Muslim places of worship. In the end when you see it, you’ll notice one similar goal: the total restriction of non-Muslims’ religious freedom.

  7. kip says:

    Will the minister stop being a flip flop! You can hop hop here and there but leave the rights of the people alone.

  8. Karcy says:

    Tengku Mohd Faizal:

    A correction on the Aramaic. It is not the “original language” of Christianity. Christianity has no “original language”. It was simply the language spoken by Jesus.

    Historically, Jesus — at least the Christian Jesus — spoke a combination of Hebrew (the language of the Temple) and Aramaic (the language of commoners). His Aramaic would not be “pure” either, having been highly Hellenized. The letters of the New Testament were written in classical Greek, and we share the same holy books in Hebrew with the Jews.

    All of this is speculation, of course, because of a simple reason: the Aramaic of Jesus is extinct. No records exist of it anymore. The earliest available Aramaic still spoken today is only Middle Aramaic. It is used in Turkey.

    All Christians practising to be theologians learn two languages, Hebrew and Greek, and we know these to be the languages of Scripture because we have the early manuscripts. This therefore proves that the popular idea of the “original text” of the Bible being missing is wrong. However, because of Christianity’s multilingual roots, theologically we do not emphasize on the importance of an original language as heavily as our Muslim and Jewish fellow Allah-worshipers.

  9. bob teoh says:

    The Home Minster was reported to have said that he made a mistake by gazetting an order under the ISA published on 16 Feb 2009 that allows conditional use of the Allah word by Christians and announced that he has rescinded it. His mere announcement is not good enough. He must issue another gazette to annul the one that he said was issued by mistake. Otherwise it still stand as valid.

  10. tengku mohd faizal says:

    Karcy

    Please do not insult the Christian by saying Aramaic is not the original language, but SPOKEN by Jesus. I strongly believe, Jesus used Aramaic to reach out to his people with the words of God.

    We can find Syrian Christian who uses Aramaic in their Sunday sermons, and learn from them. No reason for Christians not to learn Aramaic, they would do an injustice to Jesus if they abandon the language.

  11. kerishamuddinitis says:

    Parrots are amusing when they are taught to “speak”. When we hear parrots speaking, we know that the bird “speaks” but understands nothing of what it is saying. We find it even more amusing when this bird brain keeps repeating the same phrases and words. Normally, such bird brains will only know a limited smattering of words they learn through repetition.Then, the bird brain spews it all out repeatedly and on a daily basis because it’s been conditioned to do just that – “speak” something it does not understand as long as it gets to make noise. “Polly wants a cracker” – it’s a parrot, a bird brain …

  12. Karcy says:

    Tengku:

    The Aramaic spoken by the Syrian Orthodox is Middle Aramaic.

    Early, Middle and Modern languages vary very differently from one another. For example, in English, Chaucer’s English is ‘middle’ English and is completely unrecognizable to the modern speaker today. Shakespeare’s English is Early Modern English. Even earlier than Chaucer or Shakespeare is Early English, which is used in anonymous works of literature like Beowulf, and for most people today it doesn’t even sound English anymore (it sounds Elvish!).

    Languages change a lot over time. This is what I meant when I said that the Aramaic of Jesus is extinct. Piecing together Jesus’ Aramaic is educated guesswork (which, yes, our scholars do engage in!). For an example, the authenticity of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is debated because certain lines in it match Aramaic poetic traditions, something no other Gnostic Gospel can quite claim.

    For centuries, the Church solidified translations of the Bible by using only Latin translations. This actually led to worse abuse of Scripture, because only a few people had access to it, and as such not many people knew what was in the Bible. So when the Crusades happened and the priesthood told the soldiers that the more people they killed the easier their sins were forgiven, or that they could scour the Holy Land for the Holy Grail, people believed it. Neither killing people for absolving of sins or the Holy Grail exists in Scripture.

    I accept that matters of original language are important to other religions. In many ways this is highly admirable, but please accept and respect that not all other religions place the same emphasis on original languages. Nevertheless, our theologians and scholars do learn these original languages, and if you pick up almost any scholar-oriented Bible, like the New Revised Standard Version, there are always plenty of footnotes explaining the differences in manuscripts and subtleties of translations. I myself am trying to learn some basic Greek and Hebrew.

    But I must explain that while original language usage is important in Christianity, it is not *as* important as it is in Islam or Judaism because of the multilingual nature of our origins.

    If I were being mean I would say that it is just as outlandish for Prophet Muhammad to know what Jesus meant in Aramaic by expressing it in classical Arabic. But I accept that Muslims accept their version of Jesus, in Arabic, as being a truthful representation as an act of good faith. I only wish to be given the same mutual respect. Unto you be your religion, and unto me mine.

  13. tengku mohd faizal says:

    To Karcy,

    When the Second Coming of Jesus comes, I believe Jesus will still use Aramaic. But then again, nobody will ever understand him, since you claim, “This is what I meant when I said that the Aramaic of Jesus is extinct.”

  14. Karcy says:

    Tengku,

    Probably, but I personally feel that a Simon Cowell-style Queen’s English would suit his whole Bad, Mean Judge act better, so he’d be using that. I believe it, so it must be true.

  15. Dawood says:

    Tengku Mohd Faizal:

    Your comments are interesting. But have you ever checked to see what is the name for God in the ancient Aramaic New Testament, the Peshitta?

  16. ilann says:

    Religion aside, it is the disregard to our legal institutions and constitutional “guarantees” that scares me.

  17. tengku mohd faizal says:

    To Dawood:

    Sorry Dawood, from what Karcy claims, “Aramaic of Jesus is extinct”. So I really do not understand what you mean. Could you please elaborate further, perhaps show Malaysians that Karcy is wrong and that Aramaic still exists?

  18. Dawood says:

    Dear Tengku,

    I do not pretend to be an expert on Early, Middle and Modern Aramaic. An Indonesian friend has done field research in southern Syria and tells me that Aramaic, much as spoken in the first century, is still used in six small towns of that region. However, if we want to know what Aramaic of that period looked and sounded like, we can see it in black and white, even if Middle Aramaic were extinct. It’s found in the Peshitta, the Aramaic scriptures used in that area since at least the fourth century AD, and probably since the second or third century. The name then used for the one true and living Deity by followers of the Way is instructive for this discussion.


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