Nearly two-hundred members of different Muslim-rights groups had gathered outside the Court of Appeal early on Monday morning. They unfurled banners that read, among other things “Allah – Just for Muslim”.
Some had travelled several hours just to lend support to the government, which was seeking to uphold a ban on the use of the word “Allah” by the Catholic Church in its Malay language newspaper, “The Herald”.
In the end, the three-member appeals court panel upheld the ban, backing the government’s argument that it was necessary to preserve national security and public order.
A lower court’s ruling in 2010 allowing the Herald to use the word “Allah” led to a spate of attacks against churches and several mosques being vandalised in revenge attacks.
The court, in making its ruling, said the use of the word “Allah” was “not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.”
It went on to say that “It is our judgment that there is no infringement of any constitutional rights” in the ban, adding that “We could find no reason why the Herald is so adamant to use the word ‘Allah’ in their weekly [publication]. Such usage if allowed will inevitably cause confusion within the community.”
It’s a position that’s highly unusual in the Muslim world and one that has surprised Islamic scholars.
Ahmad Moussalli, a professor at the American University of Beirut says “God or Allah in our language, the Arabic language is not an exclusive word. It is an inclusive word”.
Moussalli, who teaches modern Islamic history, says “The Arab culture is very diverse. If you look at sermons in churches in the Islamic world, you see them using the same word Allah. There is no reason to object to that usage by Muslim clergy or institution.”
In neighbouring Indonesia, a country with the world’s biggest Muslim population, Christians and Muslims alike use the word “Allah” to refer to God.
The Christian community in Malaysia, which make up nine percent of the population, say they have been using the word “Allah”, the Arabic word for God, to refer to God in the Malay language for centuries.
Step into a church whose congregation speaks the local language, and you’ll hear the word “Allah”. Open a Malay language Bible, and you’ll see the word “Allah”.
The fear now is that the court’s decision, although at present confined to the Catholic newspaper, could have wider implications. Already, some groups suggest that the decision could be interpreted to apply to other publications.
Ibrahim Ali, the Chief of the Malay rights group Perkasa, said “If you read the [court] decision, that the word of “Kalima Allah” cannot be used by anybody else besides Muslims, so to me it applies to anything, to any publication but it’s up to authorities to address the issue, not me.”
Lawrence Andrew, the editor of “The Herald” called the Appeals Court decision unrealistic, describing it as a “retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities”.
The case is far from over, with the Catholic publication saying it plans to appeal the decision.