Federal Court decision has far-reaching implications for religious freedom

The Federal Court’s dismissal of the Catholic Church’s leave application to appeal the ban over the use of the word ‘Allah’ in their weekly publication, the HERALD is a blow for the religious freedom of minorities in Malaysia.

Jun 26, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
The Federal Court’s dismissal of the Catholic Church’s leave application to appeal the ban over the use of the word ‘Allah’ in their weekly publication, the HERALD is a blow for the religious freedom of minorities in Malaysia.

The decision by a 4-3 margin has far-reaching implications for the freedom of religion. It appears to endorse the Court of Appeal’s position which, among other things, said that the word ‘Allah’ is not integral to the Christian faith.

The highest court’s refusal to allow leave to appeal suggests that it agrees with the Appeals Court’s position — in effect meaning that people outside the Christian faith can decide what is and is not integral to the Christian faith.

The decision also suggests that the court agrees that a perceived or vague threat to peace or order could be used as a justification to restrict the freedom of religion. It is possible, maybe even likely, that these meanings, if extended further, could further restrict religious freedom and the rights of minorities. Will the decision now be used as a precedent to extend the ban to other Christian publications and or to other words that are felt to be exclusively Islamic?

Perhaps the three dissenting judges could sense that the decision could open a Pandora’s Box. T

he decision may embolden conservative and right wing groups to continue with their divisive ethno-religious agenda in other ways.

Even before this decision, Jais has not yet returned the Malay-language Bibles it had seized during a raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia — despite calls for it to do so. While the court decision only involves the HERALD, right wing groups are already using it as justification for not returning the seized Bibles.

As it stands, the decision leaves Malaysia in the unique position of being alone among Muslim-majority nations in not allowing Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ in their main publication.

More than 60 per cent of Christians in Malaysia use Malay. For them, ‘Allah’ is the term they use to refer to god and that is the word they use in prayer and worship. Many of them are from Sabah and Sarawak, where local leaders had said before the decision that they would allow this tradition to continue.

The decision could also have electoral significance. It must be remembered that the BN retained power on the back of strong support from its fixed deposits of Sabah and Sarawak — both states with a sizeable Christian demographic. Can the BN continue to take for granted the support from these constituents — at a time when both states are beginning to assert their rights — in the coming Sarawak state election and in the next general election?

The decision comes at a time when the federal government is increasingly bogged down with heavier debt; while allegations of corruption and money politics continue to swirl. More and more people have been burdened by the rising cost of living—even before GST is introduced — while crony companies reap fat profits. Social ills and crime are worrying, even widespread. Against this backdrop, right wing groups have stepped up their divisive rhetoric using issues of race and religion to draw support — in the process, side-lining the critical socio-economic issues facing the nation.

If only there was as much attention by politicians and firebrands to promote integrity in governance, uphold justice and alleviate suffering among the people.

All this should make us wonder what God would make of this. This is the God of all Creation, who calls for love, justice and compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation among his people of different nations. Somehow I suspect it is those who practise these noble universal values and who relieve the suffering of others —those who see one another as brothers and sisters — who will be most dear to Him rather than those who plant the seeds of divisiveness and discord.

To show us that another Malaysia is still possible, an equal number of Christians, from the Alor Setar parish, and Muslims led by bridge builders Mujahid Yusof Rawa and Abdul Rahman Kasim, were due to come together for a fellowship dinner and dialogue at a hotel in the Kedah capital — coincidentally on the same day as the Federal Court decision.

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