January 17, 2013
Debate over Christians Calling God 'Allah' Re-Ignites in Malaysia
(Updated) Christians, Sikhs, Muslims prepare for second legal tussle as sultan attempts to ban non-Muslim use of the word.
Update (Jan. 23): Reuters reports that an independent member of Malaysia's parliament has issued a call to "seize and burn copies of Bibles which use the word 'Allah' to refer to God."
But Ibrahim Ali, whose political group supports the rights of the ethnic Malay Muslim majority could face charges under various laws, Malaysia's Bar Council said. Whether or not Ali is prosecuted, though, his call to burn Bibles foreshadows "an intense election struggle as the country prepares for an election which must be called by April."
A prominent Malaysian sultan is attempting to ban non-Muslims from using the term Allah, the Arabic word for god, in prayers and religious materials, sparking protests and reviving a longstanding debate over whether Christians in Southeast Asia should refer to God as Allah.
Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah has called for an emergency meeting of the Selangor Islamic Religious Council in order to ensure that the government enforces a 2010 ban on the use of Allah by non-Muslims. The issue arose following a Christmas message by Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general for an opposition party, which encouraged the government "to lift its ban on the word published in the Malay bibles shipped in to Sabah and Sarawak, who form the bulk of Malaysia’s 9.2 percent Christian population," according to the Malaysia Insider.
But this is not the first time that the word Allah has come under legal scrutiny. As CT first examined in 2009, the Malaysian High Court ruled that use of the word could not be restricted to Muslims, allowing the Malaysian Catholic newspaper Herald to publish the word in its weekly edition. In that ruling, the judge found that "'a non-Muslim could be committing an offence if he uses the word Allah to a Muslim but there would be no offence if it was used to a non-Muslim.'"
That ruling—essentially allowing Christians and other non-Muslims the right to use the word Allah—is still in effect, unless the government successfully overturns it on appeal, Hermen Shastri, secretary-general of the Council of Churches in Malaysia (CCM), an umbrella body representing all the Protestant churches nationwide, told Malaysia Insider.