Malaysia: The only real (and unlikely) solution to Allah controversy

By being deluded into thinking that they can gain political mileage from fighting over Allah instead of doing what is morally right, both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) could end up sacrificing support from the very communities they depend on.

More than that, they also risk sacrificing the fundamental right to freedom of religion that was enshrined in the Federal Constitution and upon which Malaysia was built upon.

This is because how the Allah issue has played out over the span of more than 20 years and through two terrain-changing general elections shows that it is not going to be solved at the ballot box.

Who gets to use “Allah” will not be determined on whether you vote for PR or BN in the 14th general election.

In fact, the scale of the problem led to one of those rare instances where both BN and PR agree on something – the federal government’s 10-point solution on Bibles that use the term Allah only applies to states which do not have local laws that forbid it.

This was shown in the Selangor Islamic Religious Department’s (Jais) raid and seizure of 300 Bahasa Malaysia and Iban language Bibles one day into the new year.

Selangor executive councillor in charge of religion Sallehin Mukhyi had confirmed this, saying that the state would enforce a 1988 enactment that banned non-Muslims from using the term.

Sallehin had said this on January 26, the day after Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had made his 10-point solution statement.

This only-in-Malaysia tussle over who gets to use “Allah” is so multi-faceted and cuts across so many spheres – legal, social and economic – that it cannot just be narrowed down to an issue of scoring political points.

Says one human rights activist, even if PR rules the country after the next election, it will struggle to solve the issue and would probably still need the help of BN leaders to do it.

Pandering to the Malay Muslim vote

The Jais raid showed that the roots of the issue go back more than 20 years. In 1986, the National Fatwa Council, which is supposed to only rule on issues that affect Muslims, came out with a decree that Allah can only be used by Muslims.

Following that, about 10 states, all in the Peninsula and most with Sultanates, passed legislation that made the decree enforceable. This includes the 1988 Selangor enactment.

It only became an issue of political mileage after 2008 and during the run-up to the 13th general election last year.

It was sparked by the court case regarding the Bahasa Malaysia edition of the Catholic weekly, the Herald, which uses the term Allah.

Allah is used in the Bahasa Indonesia Bible which is widely used by Christians who worship in Bahasa Malaysia. Christians from East Malaysia and Orang Asal make up two-thirds of the Christian population in the country and typically worship in Bahasa Malaysia.

The Herald court case was seized on by Malay-Muslim supremacist groups such as Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia (Perkasa) and Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) and turned into a rallying cry.

Umno, which was being challenged by PAS and PKR for the Malay Muslim vote, picked up on the Malay supremacist campaign to help bolster its support among the community.

Yet, despite how the issue was played up and used in the general election, it did not translate into a significant amount of votes for Umno, said independent pollster Ibrahim Suffian of The Merdeka Center.    

Ibrahim said he does not find a strong connection between how Malay Muslims feel about the issue and their support for Pakatan. 

“Other factors, such as local politics, the effectiveness of the wakil rakyat and state administrations, played a bigger role in chanelling where the votes went,” said Ibrahim, whose centre has surveyed Malaysian public opinions extensively over the past several years.

To be sure, Malay Muslims hold strong views on the issue. According to a research by another think tank, Universiti Malaya’s Centre for  Elections and Democracy Studies (UMCEDEL), 77% of Malay Muslims are against non-Muslims use of Allah.

Even UMCEDEL stated that the issue does not translate into political mileage for either Pakatan or BN. The only thing it creates is inter-religious friction, the centre said.

Looking for a ‘practical solution’

Academic Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria believes the Allah issue is a “practical matter” and one which reflects the dynamic changes in Malaysian society since the late ’80s.

“There is now a sizeable population of Christians from East Malaysia who worship in Bahasa Malaysia living in the Klang valley,” said Denison, referring to the thousands of Sabahan and Sarawakians who have settled to work and study in Selangor.

So on the one hand, Christians can worship freely and in their own language when in East Malaysia, but are banned from doing so the minute they step off the plane at the KL International Airport.

Since the 1988 enactment also forbids using Bibles that have Allah, Bibles which are imported from Indonesia and arrive in Port Klang first because of the cabotage policy, could also be a problem.

This was pointed out by Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, who has written to the Home Ministry over how to deal with Bibles going through Port Klang on their way to East Malaysia.

This disconnect, between laws like the 1988 enactment and the 10-point solution, and the movement of people and goods between East and Peninsula Malaysia for work and study, has put PR leaders in a bind.

An unlikely solution

PR’s common stand on “Allah”, announced by no less than PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang himself in 2013 is that Allah is not exclusive to Muslims. Non-Muslims can use “Allah” as long as it is not abused.

Yet this “stand” is not relevant in Selangor.

“There is a failure in leadership on both sides and both at the federal and state levels to effectively solve this problem,” said Denison, who is former Malaysian Human Rights Commissioner.

Going to the courts to seek redress is an option but not one that is likely to produce a final solution either.

Christians, said Selangor DAP lawmaker Lau Weng San, will continue to use the term in worship no matter what the legislation or court rulings say.

“Christians will continue using the term and Jais will continue persecuting them. This the reality but it cannot go on like this.”

Abdul Khalid also said that the Selangor government has no plans to amend the enactment, even though PR can easily push an amendment through the state assembly.

Even if PR rules the country, said Denison, it cannot change state laws similar to the Selangor enactment, if it does not have a majority in the respective state assemblies.

Which is why those interviewed for this article believe that the only lasting solution would be for BN and PR to work together.

For what is needed is to synchronise laws both at the state and federal levels so that the rights of all Malaysians to worship as they please are respected. – January 27, 2014.