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Malaysia’s ‘Allah’ Verdict and the Rising Far Right

ICC Note:

Malaysia’s highest court ruled on June 23 that non-Muslims are banned to use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. This dispute over the past eight years had led to punitive arson against churches and seize of 321 Bible by the state’s Islamic authorities. According to MalayMailOnline, the de-facto law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim claimed that the court may have felt it was better that this case be closed in view of the public outcry among angry Muslim groups, implying that the judiciary had placed peace and harmony above the rule of law.

06/30/2014 Malaysia (RT)- The recent ruling by Malaysia’s highest court to restrict non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ has triggered a wider national debate deepening polarization among the country’s various ethnic and religious communities.

Malays, the country’s dominant ethnic group, are constitutionally ascribed as Muslims from birth, and their language borrows many terms from Arabic, including ‘Allah’. Malaysia, along with neighboring Brunei, are among the only countries in the world to regulate the use of the word ‘Allah’ and other terms deemed to be exclusive to Islam among its non-Muslim citizens.

A court ruling in 2007 prohibited a Catholic newspaper, the Herald, from using ‘Allah’ to describe the Christian god in the local Malay-language edition of its newspaper. In its attempts to appeal the judgment, the Church has argued that Christians in the Muslim-majority nation have used ‘Allah’ in Malay-language bibles and daily prayers for centuries.

Although the prohibition of the term only applied to the Herald newspaper, religious authorities in the state of Selangor took the unprecedented step of raiding the offices of the Bible Society of Malaysia in January, confiscating 321 Malay-language bibles on the basis that public disorder would ensue unless ‘Allah’ remains exclusive to Islam. The Selangor Islamic Religious Council refuses to return the bibles, in defiance of the country’s attorney general.

When a lower court ruled in favor of the Church to reverse the government ban in 2009, widespread anger ensued that saw arson attacks and vandalism at churches, temples, and other places of worship. The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision in 2013, which prompted the Catholic Church to bring their case to the Federal Court, which rejected their challenge in a 4-3 judgment last week.

This controversy spawned by this issue has proven capable of enflaming communal tensions, and stoking activism and fiery protests from far-right Malay groups who view the term ‘Allah’ as an exclusive religious symbol, that despite the term’s pre-Abrahamic origins, is rooted in the Koran. The brand of Islam practiced by Malays – who make up some 64 percent of the population – is deeply interwoven with the community’s sense of ethnic identity, and an understanding of their perspective is crucial to grasping the issue.

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