Christians are pleased with this month’s ruling by a Malaysian court that a government prohibition on non-Muslims using the word Allah is illegal and irrational. However, the ruling has expectedly stirred much emotion within the Southeast Asian nation’s Muslim community, which has always held the word to be exclusive to Islam and for use by Muslims only.
I will leave comments on the extensive grounds of the High Court’s recently released 96-page judgement, released March 17, to the legal community. My more modest purpose here is to address the social-religious implications of the case for the church at large.
The Allah Debate
The debate over Christians referring to God as Allah has a longstanding history. Beginning with concerns about the proselytization of Muslims in the 1980s, the federal government issued an executive directive in 1986 banning the use of four words by non-Muslims in order to allay Muslim fears. One of the four words was Allah. It’s important to note when this was issued, there was a context. The directive was not a total or complete ban, as the government was well aware that Christians—in particular those in East Malaysia—and indigenous peoples were using the Malay language and the word Allah in their religious worship, rites, and spiritual activities.
As time went by, Bibles and other Christian publications in the Malay language were either impounded or confiscated. In 2008, Jill Ireland, a Melanau Christian from Sarawak who was flying home had eight educational CDs (containing worship songs) seized by customs at the Kuala Lumpur international airport. The Home Affairs Ministry informed her the CDs were withheld due to their prohibited use of the word Allah. Being dissatisfied with the seizure of the CDs, Ireland sued for the return of the CDs and a declaration that as a Christian, she is entitled to use the word based on her constitutional right to freedom of religion or belief.
Malaysia’s Christian community is of course pleased with the March 10 ruling in Ireland’s favor. The bishop of the Anglican Church in Sarawak and Brunei, Datuk Danald Jute, told the Borneo Post the decision to allow the word Allah to be used by Christians all over Malaysia is “a victory for common sense” and “must not be construed or interpreted as being a victory by one person or group of persons over another.”
This response is indeed measured. While acknowledging the decision was correct, the bishop was careful not to portray a triumphalist spirit. The reason is obvious to fellow Malaysians. In 2010, a total of 10 churches were either attacked or vandalized following an initial legal victory by the Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, on behalf of the Herald newspaper, who filed a suit on the same issue. The series of arsons resulted in several churches suffering considerable damage and one totally burned down. This led to police increasing security at all churches for a period of time.
Malaysia’s Muslim community, on the other hand, is shocked and upset by this month’s ruling. Gathering to discuss the decision, a group of conservative Malay-Muslim NGO leaders expressed their displeasure and disappointment. They felt the decision was inconsistent with judicial precedent. In essence, these conservative groups viewed the decision as an affront and the weakening of Islam as the religion of the country.
These Malay-Muslim NGOs therefore proposed several resolutions, asking for the government to appeal the decision and for Islamic authorities to intervene in the case since they have a direct interest in its outcome. They are also asking for the Malay language board, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, to take active measures to standardize the use of the word Allah to be consistent with Muslim theological understanding.
Christian leaders have not responded publicly to these demands. However, civil society organizations have called upon the government to withdraw its case before the Court of Appeal, put the matter to rest, and move on with addressing the more critical issues at stake in Malaysian society.
While Christians accept the High Court decision as correct, we should recognize that a sizable segment within the Muslim community feels aggrieved by the decision. In all fairness, they have the right to appeal it.
The aggrieved feelings are compounded by two recent legal decisions that impacted the Muslim community.
The first found Malaysia’s Federal Court (equivalent to the US Supreme Court) drawing a fine line between two circumstances of legal conversion out of Islam. In one situation, where the background facts reveal a Malaysian was never born a Muslim and never practiced Islam, that person is entitled to a court declaration that he or she is not a Muslim. However, this right would not to be available via the civil courts to those born Malay-Muslim or found to have practiced Islam.
Whether this is a correct reading of the law is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, the decision was generally accepted by the Muslim community as correct. It did, however, leave some to wonder if the civil courts were beginning to encroach more and more into matters relating to Islam. A pertinent matter, as Malaysia practices a dual legal system of civil and sharia courts.
The second Federal Court decision had a greater impact, and brought the Muslim community much uncertainty and trepidation. In this case, the court took the view that the act of engaging in “unnatural sex”—an offense under Islamic law—should fall within the jurisdiction of the federal criminal courts rather than the sharia courts. While the substance of this decision is still debated by both sides of the divide, in the mind of many Muslims, one implication is clear. It confirmed their suspicion that the civil legal system is now encroaching into the jurisdiction of the sharia courts and matters pertaining to Islam.
So, when the Ireland decision was delivered, it fell like a ton of bricks upon the Muslim community. With past rhetoric by state and non-state actors politicizing religion—claiming Islam is under threat and creating a “siege mentality” in the mind of many Muslims—it makes achieving a rational and objective response difficult and almost out of reach. Whether Muslims and Christians in Malaysia are able to navigate this deadlock in a harmonious way for the common good is the subject of discerning interfaith engagement that the church in Malaysia must embark on.
A Missional Response
The calling of Christians in a multicultural society like Malaysia has always been to be a salt and light for the ever-expanding presence and reality of the kingdom of God. Christians are never called to live for themselves, but for the sake of the kingdom of God; to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before the Lord (Micah 6:8). In doing so, we have been, in the words of the apostle Paul, “entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation.” This should not be understood as confined to sinners being reconciled to God but as having a lateral dimension of creation, and hence humanity becoming reconciled to God and each other in the “already/not yet” eschatological vision of the new heaven and new earth.
This eschatological vision motivates a concrete expression for Christians in Malaysia to strive for the flourishing of diversity of cultures. This multicultural dimension encourages Christians in Malaysia towards a respectful social engagement and creative dialogues between different cultures, their respective moral vision, and social good. It presents opportunities for Christians to not only uphold the rights of Christ followers to their own cultural bearings, but also cultivates the self-imagination and moral empathy needed to build bridges and bridge the divide for the well-being of everyone. This then, is the Christian redemptive story in Malaysia for such a time as this in this longstanding controversy.
We must therefore ask: What really are the concerns of Malay Muslims and Christians in this longstanding controversy? What are the differences and disagreements between Christians and Muslims? Are their disagreements and concerns perceived (rhetorical or politicized) or real?
There is no doubt the Muslim community in Malaysia has been using the word Allah to denote God for a long time. If the word is now legally used by Christians or any other faiths to reference God, they fear this may lead to confusion within their own ranks, including their younger generation. Many Muslims feel that when Christians use the word freely in their religious worship and evangelistic activities, it will lead to greater proselytization of Muslims. In their eyes, this is regrettable as it will only cause disruption and conflict within their own household and community, eventually leading to a breakdown of the family unit. Tensions will arise between siblings, parents, and close relations if and when one member of their household leave Islam for another religion. The embarrassment to the family and household is something all Muslims wish to avoid.
Further, there is also the unspoken apprehension that religious syncretism and accommodation may arise within the Muslim community if the word is used simultaneously by two different religious communities with different theological meaning, history, and trajectory.
On the other hand, Christians are fearful that Muslims are beginning to impose their will on the Christian community. Many Christians feel Muslims are telling the Christian community what or what not to do in their worship, liturgy, and expression. In their eyes, this is surely a slow and sure start that will only lead to the eventual subjugation of the Christian community in East Malaysia. This fear, together with the ongoing efforts at converting Christian natives to Islam, adds to the feeling of animosity already present. Thus, they believe any such attempts at the tyranny of the majority must be resisted at all cost.
While acknowledging that there are legitimate fears and concerns between Christians and Muslims in this longstanding Allah debate, it is imperative for the church in Malaysia to move beyond fears to find avenues for the concrete expression of the Christian redemptive story. To this end, Scripture reminds us we are to love our neighbors in affirmation and understanding, not simply tolerating them. Mutual understanding requires adjustments and therefore moderation in the interests of social harmony.
It is in this sort of dialogue that embraces the ethos of diversity and differences as the norm that an acceptable outcome and solution may be found. This form of dialogue and engagement also seeks to enhance relationships and build trust with those whom we often say cannot and will not agree with us. The building of trust and relationship should not be for utility but because God commands all believers to love our neighbors. As we genuinely love and respect our neighbors, suspicion and caution will be minimized and openness created. This presents the Christian and Muslim with the opportunity to search for acceptable solutions.
As the search for an acceptable solution is underway, it is necessary to espouse a “middle-ground” narrative that attempts to balance the keeping of human relations intact while at the same time finding an appropriate landing for consensus and agreement. Such an enterprise would require the exercise of practical reasonableness and “practical concordance,” a principle of German constitutional law that I apply to the Malaysian context. The term concordance implies harmonious, consistent relations to each other. In practical terms, this may require Christians in Malaysia to use the word Allah with certain conditions attached. In the past, such conditions appear in Christian materials such as a note or a stamp with the words “A Christian Publication,” or “For Christian Use,” or “A Christian Material.” Other ideas may appear as we dialogue together.
Muslims on the other hand, may need to concede that East Malaysian Christians have for generations been using Allah in their worship and liturgy and must therefore be permitted to use the word. In a way, these and other similar ideas are accommodation or compromises in a practical concordance that must be seriously considered or explored if both sides are to come to some consensus and resolution. Admittedly, this is a formidable task for both sides. Yet it is one in which Christians in Malaysia must necessarily take the lead.
The right to freedom of religion or the exercise of religious liberty must not only be confined to the singling out of violations and discriminations. It must, as its true purpose, enable all faiths and religious communities the room and space to contribute in a meaningful fashion towards the well-being and the flourishing of all people, communities, and cultures at anytime, anywhere, and for all generations.
Eugene Yapp is a Kuala Lumpur-based senior fellow for South and Southeast Asia with the Religious Freedom Institute, and writes for the St. Charles Institute. He was previously the secretary general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.