Lawyers: ‘Allah’ appeal opens door to oppression of religious minorities

A Muslim demonstrator stands outside Malaysia’s Court of Appeal, along with others, in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur October 14, 2013. Lawyers have argued that the Allah ruling opens the doors to the intrusion on rights of minorities. — Reuters pic
A Muslim demonstrator stands outside Malaysia’s Court of Appeal, along with others, in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur October 14, 2013. Lawyers have argued that the Allah ruling opens the doors to the intrusion on rights of minorities. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 14 — The Court of Appeal’s ruling on the “Allah” issue exposes the rights of Malaysia’s religious minorities to oppression under the guise of appeasing the majority, lawyers said today.

In expressing its disappointment at the appellate court’s ruling, the Catholic Lawyers’ Society said the voices of moderation appeared to be “drowned out” by the religiously intolerant, stressing that the minorities’ rights in Malaysia must be protected.

“To find that the minority must yield to the majority also sends a frightening message that the minorities’ rights are subject to the whims and fancies of the majority.

“The minorities rights to freedom of religion are enshrined in the Federal Constitution and must be upheld at all times and not oppressed by the majority,” the Catholic Lawyers’ Society wrote in a press statement signed off by its president, Viola De Cruz Silva.

The Court of Appeal today overturned a 2009 High Court decision that the Catholic Church has the right to use the word “Allah” in its weekly paper Herald, finding that the Home Ministry’s ban of the word in the publication did not infringe on the Church’s rights.

“The upshot of the decision, it would seem, is that only in Malaysia is a Christian not allowed to use the word ‘Allah’.

To hold that the word ‘Allah’ is NOT part of the Christian faith is tantamount to telling us Christians how we should practise our faith, what words we should or should not use,” she added, noting that almost 1.6 million Christians in Sabah and Sarawak have been using the word for centuries in their religious practice.

In the judgment read out this morning by Justice Datuk Seri Mohamed Apandi Ali, the Court of Appeal ruled that the use of the word “Allah” was not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.

“From such finding, we find no reason why the respondent is so adamant to use the name ‘Allah’ in their weekly publication. Such usage, if allowed, will inevitably cause confusion within the community,” said Apandi, who headed the three-man panel in the case.

Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said the decision was “disappointing but not unexpected”, adding that it strengthened arguments that the minorities’ rights are being tossed aside.

“It does add to the argument that rights of minorities are increasingly sacrificed to appease the majority, even though it means violating fundamental liberties,” Syahredzan told The Malay Mail Online when contacted today.

“It has been reported that now Muslim groups want the ban extended to Borneo churches. What next? Will they go after the Sikh holy book? And based on this decision, they can do so on the pretext that it will cause confusion,” he added.

Syahredzan also questioned the basis of the Court of Appeal’s ruling that the use of the word “Allah” is not an integral part of faith and practice of Christianity, saying that the government had not given factual arguments in the High Court that would allow the Court of Appeal to arrive at this decision.

“Because this is an appeal, the same evidence would be before the Court of Appeal. So on what basis did it come to the decision that ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the Christian faith, if there are no facts before it for it to take into consideration?” he asked.

“Judges are experts on the law and not experts on the Christian faith. So to come to such a decision, it must be based on evidence,” Syahredzan said after viewing the summary of the Court of Appeal’s judgment.

Syahredzan also questioned how the Court of Appeal determined that allowing the use of the word “Allah” would cause confusion within the community and threaten the peace of the country, saying that the High Court had found no supporting evidence to back these claims.

He pointed out the Federal Constitution clearly stated that Islam is the country’s religion but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony, with the country’s supreme law also protecting citizens’ freedom of religion.

“This right to practise and profess religion cannot be restricted on the basis that it may cause confusion, especially when there is no evidential basis before the Court to come to this conclusion."

He explained the only measure the government could enforce was to limit the propagation of the religion, which could be achieved by requiring the publication to carry a warning saying it was “Terhad” (restricted) or “For Christians Only”.

“To completely deny the use of the word is disproportionate if the objective of the ban is to control propagation to Muslims,” he said.

“Judges should do well to remember that they have sworn to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” said Syahredzan, who is well-versed in the country’s constitutional laws.

Another civil rights lawyer, Nizam Bashir, said the judgment today presented a “grave misconception” that the word “Allah” can only be exclusively used by Muslims, noting that the ruling would affect other religious groups besides Christians.

“I think there’s a misconception that only Christians would be affected by this judgment, it actually affects more,” the Syariah lawyer told The Malay Mail Online, pointing out that the Sikh’s holy book carried the word “Allah” in some 46 instances.

Nizam said that the fear of confusion among the Muslim community should instead be countered by education, saying that Islamic scholars must do their job by explaining the different understanding attached to the word “Allah” in different religions.

“Confusion is not stamped out by legislating prohibition. Confusion is stamped out by educating your community as to what Allah signifies for you,” he said, saying that such a court decision would just make other religious communities feel uncomfortable.

Nizam viewed the court’s ruling today as potentially causing more fissures in an already divided country, saying: “That’s going to cause more problems, we are a nation that is divided”.

The Allah row erupted in 2008 when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the Herald’s newspaper permit, prompting the Catholic Church to sue the government for violating its Constitutional rights.

The case returned to the courts in September, over three years after Putrajaya filed an appeal against the Kuala Lumpur High Court’s decision in favour of allowing Catholic weekly the Herald to continue using the word “Allah” in its Bahasa Malaysia section.

The Catholic Church had in July this year moved to strike out the government’s appeal after patience ran out with the lack of progress in the government’s challenge on the decision that has contributed to festering interfaith ties in the country.

The Catholic Church said it will file an appeal against today’s ruling with the Federal Court, where the issue is expected to reach its conclusion.