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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Malaysia Maintains Only Muslims Can Use ‘Allah’ Term
The government has told the Herald, a Catholic newspaper threatened with closure for using the word “Allah” in its Malay segment, that it must abide by a ruling not to use the word even though the weekly secured renewal of its printing permit for 2008.

In a statement released on Friday (January 4), Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Abdullah Mohammad Zin said that he was instructed by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to clarify the matter in order to avert public confusion.

“The use of the word Allah by other religions may arouse sensitivity and create confusion among Muslims,” the minister stated.

In addition to “Allah,” the Arabic word for God, the minister said that use of three other words – “solat” (prayer), “kaabah” (Islamic shrine in Mecca), and “baituallah” (mosque in Mecca) – is also prohibited in non-Muslim publications. He said this restriction was based on previous cabinet decisions. Two local dailies cited different dates as to when those cabinet decisions were made: July 30, 2002 according to the Sun, and October 18 and November 1, 2006 according to the Star.

The Herald continued to use the word “Allah” in its January 6 issue, as the editor had said renewal of its publishing permit did not come with any restrictions. Following the government’s latest order, Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew said the weekly will press ahead with its lawsuit filed on December 5 to challenge the government prohibition.

Strong Public Reaction

The statement from the minister drew strong reactions from Christian and other groups.

The chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, Bishop Dr. Paul Tan Chee Ing, expressed “disappointment and regret” over the cabinet decision.

Appealing to the universal heritage of religious terminology like “Allah” and Article 11 of the Federal Constitution (which guarantees freedom of religion in Malaysia), the bishop urged the government “to recognize and uphold the right of all Malaysians to the continued use of the word ‘Allah’ and other appropriate religious terminology without restrictions.”

Ramon Navaratnam, chairman of the Centre for Public Policy Studies, appealed to the government to review its decision, which could be interpreted as “narrow, insensitive and contrary to our rukun negara [canons of nationhood], and our Federal Constitution.”

At least one other religious group also has expressed concern. Harcharan Singh, head of the Malaysian Gurdwara Council, wondered what will happen to the Sikh religion in Malaysia since Sikhs also use the word “Allah” to refer to God.

“Sikh gurus in India have used these terms for centuries, they have become part of the Punjabi language, and we are still using them today,” Harcharan told Malaysiakini on Friday (January 4).

Other critics pointed out that if usage of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims will confuse Muslims, then the word “Allah” must be removed from a number of state anthems, including those of Perak, Pahang and Kedah. If the word were not removed, the reasoning goes, then it might cause non-Muslims to mislead Muslims by their singing of the anthems.

The public debate on whether non-Muslims can use the word “Allah” started on December 27, when the Herald announced that it was taking the government to court over the right to use the word in its publications.

In December and months prior, the Internal Security Ministry issued numerous directives to the publisher of the Herald and threatened to shut down the publication. Just two days prior to expiration of its printing permit for 2007, however, the publisher received a letter renewing its printing permit for 2008.

Following receipt of the letter, Fr. Andrew of the Herald was widely quoted in the media as saying the letter did not specify any restrictions. The publisher then went ahead to use the word “Allah” in its first issue of 2008.

The Herald publishes in four different languages – English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil – for the sake of its multiracial and multilingual congregations. The Malay segment, in which the word “Allah” was used, caters to indigenous East Malaysian Catholics who do not speak English, Mandarin or Tamil.

Supporters of the publishers note that Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – and other places in Asia and Africa where local languages come in contact with Arabic – still use “Allah” to refer to God.

Source : Compass Direct News, Santa Ana, California (USA) and Istanbul/Turkey.