Ever since the government's ban of the usage of the word 'Allah' in the Malay section of the Herald in 2007, we have seen many arguments, both logical and illogical, for and against, the usage of the word by the Catholic Church in Malaysia. I think the controversy over whether the Church (or other religious minorities) has the 'right' to use the word 'Allah' is misplaced.
Here are some examples to illustrate my point. The Court of Appeal held that the word 'Allah' is not an integral part of the Christian faith. In light of this judgement, Fr. Lawrence Andrew argued that "Allah is a term in the Middle East and in Indonesia, it is a term both for Christians and Muslims. You cannot say all of the sudden it is not an integral part." At the other end, Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, a lawyer representing the government, told the BBC that "if they [non-Muslims] say they want to use a Malay word, they should use Tuhan instead of Allah."
The focus is almost always on the word 'Allah' and who has the right to use it. I would argue that this 'right' to use the word 'Allah' is an important but misplaced issue. The question is not so much whether the word 'Allah' can be used in a non-Muslim context, but whether a third party ought to interfere in the internal affairs of religious institutions. Imagine the Catholic Church as a family, and within this family there are practices just like every other household. Then imagine that you are the head of that family; would you like other non-family members to interfere in your family affairs? Would you like them to say 'you should do this,' or 'refrain from doing that', especially when they have no grounds to do so? Certainly not.
Intuitively, we reject outsiders trying to interfere with our affairs. This may be the underlying reason behind Fr. Andrew's recent insistence that the word 'Allah' would be used in all Catholic Masses in Selangor, despite Jais' intent to prohibit its usage on the authority of a state enactment. The discontent stems more from a recognition that non-Muslim religious minorities have the right to manage their own affairs without external interference. This claim is not without a constitutional basis.
Though Article 3 of the Constitution provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation, it also provides that 'other religions may be practised in peace and harmony…'. What it meant by 'peace' is the absence of unnecessary state interference. The Bar Council Chairman, Christopher Leong's interpretation of the words 'peace and harmony' further bolsters my argument. He stated that "the words simply mean 'the right of other religions to be practiced unmolested and free of threats'." This is also supported by a fundamental liberty outlined in Article 11 that every religious group has the right to manage their own affairs.
One may object that this argument would disallow state interference in the affairs of dangerous religious groups like the practice of some Rastafarians in consuming cannabis for spiritual purposes. It does not follow that these constitutional rights would be an absolute immunity against legitimate state interference.
However, I find no justification for it in the 'Allah' saga, as the constitutional values of Malaysia, common to all Malaysians, are not threatened by the usage of the word Allah by non-Muslims, since the word is not used to convert Muslims to the Christian faith. Instead, it is as Dato Zaid Ibrahim has put it, 'a part of Christian linguistic tradition in this country.'
I believe that these issues would be prudently considered and wisely adjudged by the Federal Court if the appeal by the Catholic Church arrives at their bench.
First published in the Malay Mail Online on 1 January 2014