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Right to go to court over “Allah”


(Pic by Nikolai Mamluke / Dreamstime)

THE argument that Malaysians are being asked to accept over the “Allah” issue sounds like this:

“Muslims are the majority in this country. In a democracy, the majority’s wishes should be prioritised. Christians may have the right to use the word ‘Allah’, but why do it when it provokes the Muslim Malaysian majority? The Catholic Herald started this mess by going to court and insisting on their right to call God ‘Allah’. If they had been respectful of peace and harmony and refrained from going to court, we would have been spared this situation of inflamed passions.”

The assumption underpinning these arguments is that non-Muslims who want to use “Allah” should be mindful of the majority’s “religious sensitivities”. But is democracy founded on the notion that whatever the majority wants, it must necessarily get? Is “tyranny of the masses” really what democracy is about?

Majority rules?

Notwithstanding whether a majority of Muslim Malaysians object to non-Muslims using “Allah“, it is incorrect to state that the majority’s wishes should prevail in this case.


(Pic by Jirikabele / sxc.hu)

Majority rule is most applicable during elections, not when a question of rights is involved. In a Malaysian first-past-the-post election, for example, even though 49.9% of the electorate may have voted against the eventual winner, they still have to respect the majority’s decision.

But when it comes to deciding on policies and the implementation of laws, it is not the will of the majority that should advise the government. It is the Federal Constitution and the rule of law.

The need for this guiding principle becomes even more apparent when there are diverse views among the constituents; and even more so when there are shifting majorities. For example, if the decision on policies were to be decided by the majority, which majority should political leaders choose? In East Malaysia, the majority may support the use of “Allah” by non-Muslim Malaysians. Similarly in majority non-Muslim Petaling Jaya in Selangor.

Additionally, it is not clear whether there truly is a Muslim Malaysian majority that objects to the Herald and other non-Muslims using “Allah”. In the absence of a national referendum, how can the government even know what the majority wants?

Genuine democracy

More importantly, is it rational and good governance for policies to be guided by the wishes of the majority, however that majority is defined, at the expense of the legitimate rights of others? What if the majority’s wishes are oppressive, as during the days of black slavery in America and Nazi rule in Germany, and today’s Israeli blockade of Gaza? What if giving in to the majority means sacrificing fundamental liberties that are guaranteed by the Federal Constitution in Malaysia?

Tempting as it may be to succumb to the pressures of the majority, whether real or constructed, this is a slippery slope that is likely to lead to chaos and the oppression of individuals and minority groups. Clearly, such outcomes are not what genuine democracies are about.

Who, then, protects minority rights in a democracy if the government, ever conscious of winning brownie points with the electoral masses, refuses to do so?

Enter the courts

The defender of citizen rights in a democracy is the judiciary. Indeed, the function of an independent, impartial and competent judiciary is to arbitrate between citizens and the state.

This, in part, is what separation of powers means in a democracy. If our political leaders are tempted to compromise our liberties for the sake of their own gains, the courts should be there to hold them in check.

Hence, this is my response to those who say the Herald shouldn’t have gone to court: Where, then, should they have gone to seek recourse over a Home Ministry decision to deny them their rights? The Catholic Church in Malaysia already tried the backdoor route for more than 20 years, where they depended on the indulgence of the prime minister to resolve the issue. In the end, that method did not ensure their rights were protected.

So, what are these critics really arguing for when they say the Herald should not have gone to court? It seems that these critics expect the Christian community, as the minority in Malaysia, to abandon their constitutional rights and accept the home minister’s decision. Indeed, there are some who say that Catholics should give up their right to “Allah” for the sake of harmony since there are some Muslims who oppose it vehemently.

But why isn’t anyone calling on those Muslims to abandon their claim to use “Allah” exclusively?


Priest and altar server during a Catholic service (Pic by Nick Choo)

It is clear that no democracy can decide on an issue based on who shouts the loudest or who threatens the most. Hence, it is precisely in these situations that the court has to step in and make a decision based on the law, not the court of raucous public opinion.

It’s about justice

An independent and competent judiciary considers only the rule of the law and not the views of the majority. Justice, after all, is depicted as blindfolded to symbolise its imperviousness to outside influence. The race, religion and political beliefs of the plaintiffs, defendants and judge should all be left outside the court room. How else would the rights of minorities be protected, what more in cases where citizens have been unlawfully oppressed by more powerful institutions such as the state?


(Pic by dcubillas / sxc.hu)

One wonders about the Muslims who oppose the Herald‘s actions of going to court. How would they feel if a Christian majority told them they could not use “Allah” since “Allah” predates Islam? Or a secular government decreed that Muslim women could not wear the veil even if they chose to? Or that Muslims could not build a mosque in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood?

And what if a Christian majority told Muslims they had to accede to the trampling of these rights because the Christian majority’s sensitivities were at stake? Wouldn’t Muslims, in such a situation, also seek recourse in the courts and hope for judges to uphold justice?

In Malaysia’s case, it is more crucial than ever for there to be an independent and competent judiciary to ensure citizens’ rights are protected. And following that, to have a government that respects the court’s decisions and is unafraid to explain to its electorate that whatever they may think, it was the Herald‘s right to go to court.


Ding Jo-Ann supports the rule of law, not the tyranny of the majority.

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23 Responses to “Right to go to court over “Allah””

  1. KohJL says:

    Aye, it’s too easy to forget that even the Nazis were voted into power.

  2. Farouq Omaro says:

    It would be wise for the Herald to publicly announce that it would not use the term “Allah” in its publication, and it would be wise for the government to publicly announce its acceptance of this decision and to withdraw its appeal. This would prevent prolonged protests against Christians using “Allah” and other Arabic terms in daily worship and in the Bible. On the government’s part, this could help it to score points with non-Muslim Malaysians. And finally, the ignorant protesters and church burners can rest knowing that the Catholic Church is not “changing the name of Jesus to Allah” as they think.

  3. Nehemiah says:

    I totally agree with you on this article. The only problem is that you put the Isearli blockade of Gaza (by quoting a Bernama article, which is often anti-Israeli and pro-Muslim) in the same breath as the black slavery and Nazi rule. Are the Gaza Palestinians herded into gas chambers and are they enslaved in actual chains and whipped for like the black slaves?

    A little objectivity and research into the background of the blockade would serve you well.

  4. Nicholas Aw says:

    A well-thought and provocative article, Ding Jo-Ann.

    Some Christians and even non-Christians suggested that the “Allah” claim be withdrawn for the sake of peace and harmony, but haven’t the non-Muslims being accommodating and tolerant all the while?

    When a First Communion service in a church was interrupted some time ago, the parishioners did not react. When the Host [believed by Catholics to be the Body of Christ] was desecrated by two journalists, the people did not retaliate. When a cow head was trampled on, again the people remained calm. Then there were the attacks on churches and a Sikh temple, yet again their followers did not react.

    If all these incidents had been the other way around, I dread to think what would have happened.

    The whole issue started when the former home minister, Syed Hamid Albar, banned the use of the word “Allah”. As much as the BN/Umno government denies that the issue is non-political, their actions so far do not seem to reflect this.

    As long as some Muslims approach this issue with a one-track mind, finding an amicable solution seems remote. If only there were more liberal-thinking Muslims the likes of Marina Mahthir and Khalid Samad, then perhaps we would be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  5. minority says:

    Good propaganda, we need articles like this to support the tyranny of the minority and to stir up the sentiments of the majority. Majority does not count here in Malaysia; there is nothing. The minority rules here, and has ruled even before Independence. Thank you, TNG, for this cheap propaganda, otherwise it would have been very expensive for us to start one.

  6. M.K. says:

    Who started it? It is not the Herald but one guy who finally lost his cabinet post and is hiding somewhere. The High Court decision on this issue was absolutely correct, [and had] nothing to do with the judge being a Christian or non-Muslim (as reported). She interpreted the law correctly and bravely. She will have a place in Heaven!

  7. Margaret says:

    Indeed, you are right. The Herald should also not accede to the suggestion to compromise by resolving this matter by other means, which would then leave the legal situation once again unclear. It was the Herald‘s right to go to court, and it should not be pressured to withdraw or compromise in any way.

  8. Lion says:

    The one thing that I still can NOT understand is why the Church decided to keep this a secret back in 1986, when they were informed by the government of the cabinet decision to ban the word “Allah”.

    Who do they think they are, to NOT have disclosed the matter to the laity? If they are to serve the “flock of sheep” as they have vowed to God, they should have told the truth. They shouldn’t have got a non-binding (vocal) agreement from Mahathir that the word “Allah” could go on being used by Christians. They should have had faith in the laity to come up with a solution.

    The Church officials have failed their respective churches. They have failed the members of their community, and most importantly, they have failed God, or Allah.

  9. AN says:

    Well said. No elected government should ignore the ruling of the courts and pander to threats of certain quarters. And certainly no political party or Minister should decide who can and cannot use the word Allah. Any country that does not follow the rule of law is surely on its away to anarchy.

  10. AR says:

    Thank you for a brave article. I do agree that, even as a Malay Muslim myself, I find the “birth right” mentality of many Malay Muslims in Malaysia rather loathsome, to say the least. Even the Sec Gen of Abim told Malaysiakini after the Friday protest that Isna may have agreed to the use of Allah by all because they are speaking as a minority group, while in Malaysia, Muslims are a majority and therefore should have a different stance. Illogical much?

    All the same, I would prefer the language used by the TNG to be less “adversarial” and be extension, “angry”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I notice that there seems to be a rise in this in the TNG’s content of late. I credit TNG as a media portal which produces fair, in-depth and thought-provoking journalism. Somehow, your take on the “Allah”issue has been ever so slightly biased, if only because of the way you choose to phrase or present the issue.

    Keep up the good work, either way. I am most certainly willing to pay for content if you go subscription.

  11. MC says:

    To Farouq Omaro: Saying that the Herald should announce that it will not use the word “Allah” in their publications is saying that the ban by the government was correct and that it was the church’s fault that this has happened to them.

    Who are this generation of Malaysian Muslims (and this government) to go against the translated Bible that is over 400 years old? Why is this generation of Malaysian Muslims so important that “Allah” cannot be used in this country by other faiths, but can be used in other countries?

    I’m pretty much repeating what was ingeniously written by Judge Lau, following the law AND the constitution of this country. The government would score points from non-Muslims by doing their best to educate the ignorant and misinformed public about Christians using “Allah” in their publications, and that it is not referring to the Muslim God, but the Christian God. It’s a simple differentiation and it’s not hard to understand.

  12. seriati says:

    I am a Muslim. Last Saturday I went to church to attend a celebration of the sacrament of holy matrimony between a young loving couple. This has nothing to do with the current Allah issue. But it reminds me of similar ceremony I attended more than 20 years ago … I am so glad I went. [...]

  13. One of the best pieces written on the issue. In the end it comes down to legal issues and minority rights, not “sensitivity”. And how could the judge have decided otherwise, given the weight of evidence?

    If Malaysia truly is the democracy it claims to be, it will let the courts and open parliamentary debate decide the issue.

  14. Anonymous Coward says:

    You want to know why the Malay Muslims insist on keeping the word Allah exclusive? The reason is because the Malays don’t actually understand any form of Arabic. (Sure, some do, but their numbers are few.) So, any form of recitation of the Quran or any sort of Arabic for that matter becomes rendered in all mystical and holy. Thus, at some point, it becomes “magic”. Something that no one but them (and other Muslims) can use, despite not understanding a word of it.

    Think about it, the greeting Assalamualaikum is innocuous and even awesome in its meaning: “Peace be upon you.” Yet it’s frowned upon when non-Muslims use it! This feeling of magic when it comes to Arabic words is why the Malay Muslims are extremely uncomfortable when someone who is not Muslim uses it.

  15. Tan says:

    Since it was a BN minister that created the [controversy] by banning the use of the word “Allah”, he should find an amicable solution to it. After all, Christians are merely following the law as enshrined in the Federal Constitution as ruled by the High Court.

    If everyone is arguing about unwritten laws, there will be no solution irrespective of how many dialogues, appeals and discussions are held. It is untenable for anyone to create tension as the price to be paid later may be too high to bear for the nation and its citizens.

    As the saying goes, “It takes days to destroy a nation, but generations to rebuild it.”

  16. joe says:

    But this is Malaysia, where the mob rules, or so it seems. Whoever shouts the loudest will win the day. It doesn’t really matter if it’s just an empty gong!

  17. Azizi Khan says:

    Farouq,
    Is Islam a draconian religion to the point that lynch mobs rule ? Why should the Herald not use “Allah” in its publications? Why should they give in ?

    You think “Malaysian Islam” is not draconian, consider this: there are laws controlling other religions in this country. Islam, however, has a department in the prime minister’s office. There are multitude of religious bodies for Islam and mosques are built everywhere, sometimes within metres from each other. For non-Muslims, to get a permit to build a temple or any other place of worship is hard.

    Islam may be the “official” religion of the federation, but our constitution did not say discrimination is allowed. It does say everyone is free to worship the way they want.

    You can go around telling people how awesome and fair Islam is, but in reality in Malaysia, “Malaysian Islam” is very draconian and skewed away from true Islam.

    Think about it.

  18. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    Where is that guarantee you speak off Jo Ann Ding? From the spiel about your background in this publication you are meant to be a legal practitioner with a litigation background.

    I simply ask you to prove your point you make so often with The Nut Graph and of your own material that there are religious or other guarantees in the federal constitution.

    Even in a liberal democracy such as Australia, such guarantees if found are implied by convention and not guaranteed in the absence of a Bill of Rights.

    Now where is this fiction of a constitutional guarantee you and your colleagues speak of. It occurs in the legal and journalistic professions you so often refer to as constitutional guarantees of religious freedoms but where, for the preservation of your own professional integrity, where?

    Your editors are terribly sensitive to challenges to your continued and unabating inaccuracies in your interpretation and reading of the law that they censor a reasonable and valid challenge to your propagation of lies. This is more than mere poetic or journalistic license. They are made carelessly and recklessley without regard for the truth of half-truths your assertions contain.

    Where is the constitutional guarantee?

    As to your other comments and analogies they are so far off the mark it would be useless to dignify these odious comments with a response.

    The facts are special and different in this particular case and must be seen for what it is though not necessarily in isolation. But you must be honest where you find it difficult to be honourable.

    Gopal Raj Kumar

  19. Brian says:

    Right ho. But there is now a real problem — not with the article but the resolution. The court’s decision courageously demonstrated that the judiciary in Malaysia could be independent; the decision was in line with historic precedents and the Malaysian constitution. (A pity that not many bets are laid for the future career of this honorable judge; ma’am, we raise our hats and bow in front of you; may there be more like you.)

    The real test comes upon appeal. The government, as all parties in a dispute, has a right to appeal a court’s decision. Whether or not it is a wise thing to do in light of the legal argumentation is besides the point. What the government, however, has no right to do is to compromise, or condone even the appearance of undue influence upon, the appeals process.

    We all know from under which stone this whole idiocracy crawled out. Not only Malaysians but the rest of the world, yes, also the Muslim parts of the world, is watching how we’ll manage to put it back to where it belongs.

  20. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/01/15/the-jewish-catholic-crisis-how-bad-is-it-and-why/

    Perhaps the Muslims are not that sensitive after all as claimed by The Nut Graph and its contributors. Not that the rest of the world was not aware off the Muslim-bashing you portray as if it is a universally accepted art form.

    Your readers ought to be able review for themselves the extent of bad politics and insensitive and unnecessary provocations by the Catholic Church under [...] Josef Ratzinger [...].

    Here the Jews vent their spleen on him. The Malay Muslims have been right all along. Once more I challenge any of your legal experts and your journalists who make the claim to provide the evidence of freedom of religion or guarantees over freedom of religion in the Federal Constitution they so readily espouse to on your pages without let or hindrance.

    As for me I suppose that does not fall in line with policy, [Shanon]?

    Gopal Raj Kumar

  21. Salim embi says:

    Good article, but the damage has been done. We all, I believe, have to move forward from this point. Reconciliation maybe. This issue has hit all personalities involved. For the Muslims, Allah means one god, and the Christians triune god, and the end does not meet.

  22. alamak says:

    Q: Was Christianity practised at the time of the Prophet? Yes.
    Q: Was the Prophet aware of the teachings of the Christians? Yes.
    Q: Did he know of their teaching of the Trinity? Yes.
    Q: What did He say? Did He not say the Your Allah and Our Allah are one?
    Q: Are certain Muslims disagreeing with the Prophet?
    Q: If the Prophet was alive today, what would they reply to Him?


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