Muslim activist stands outside Malaysia court
Muslim activist stands outside Malaysia court Reuters

Malaysia's Federal Court banned non-Muslims from using the world "Allah" to refer to God in a 4-3 judgement Monday, sparking a debate on both free speech and freedom of religion. 

Malaysia has a 63% Muslim majority, according to 2010 census information, and has declared Islam the state religion. Buddhists and Christians comprise the next two largest religious minorities there, at 19.8% and 9.2% respectively.

The issue is not so much a matter of religion insomuch as a matter of language, analysts say.

Most religious minorities in Malaysia worship in English, Tamil, or various Chinese dialects, according to the Associated Press  -  but some Malay-speaking people on Borneo island have no other word for God but "Allah," which is "God" in Malay. 

The government says the term "Allah" should be reserved exclusively for Muslims. If other religions use the term, that could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert away from Islam, it claims - despite evidence that Malaysian Christians have used the word in prayer and religious texts for centuries as part of the Malay language. 

The ban has also raised questions over freedom of speech and of the press, as the edict applies mostly to written materials. Newspapers using the term would lose their license; imported Malay-language Bibles containing the term Allah, typically from Indonesia, already have been blocked. So has Japanese anime Ultraman for their Malay translation for a character's name. 

"This is a sad state of affairs that shows how far and fast religious tolerance is falling in Malaysia," said Phil Robertson, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch. "The Malaysian government should be working to promote freedom of religion rather politically exploiting religious wedge issues."

Legal back-and-forth

The debate first came to the fore in 2007, according to AFPwhen Malaysia's home ministry threatened to revoke the Herald's publishing permit for using the word. 

The Roman Catholic Church argued that the ban failed to consider the rights of all minorities in Malaysia, as well as noting that Malay-speaking peoples had no alternative for the word.

In 2009, a court ruled in the Church's favor, sparking attacks on Christian houses of worship across Malaysia. The ban was eventually reinstated by an appeals court in October 2013. 

"We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities," said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the newspaper at the center of the controversy.

"It will confine the freedom of worship," he said. "We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it."

Christians have united in their outrage at the ban. Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches in Malaysia stated Monday that Christians will continue to use the word Allah in their Bibles and worship, saying the court ruling was only confined to the Herald

"We maintain that the Christian community continues to have the right to use the word 'Allah' in our Bibles, church services and Christian gatherings," Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said in a statement.

Locals, apparently, disagree. According to the Guardian, about 100 Muslim activists cheered at the verdict outside the court, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and waving signs that read "Uniting to defend the name of Allah." 

"I'm very pleased and happy that we have won the case. I hope the issue will be put to rest," Ibrahim Ali, head of Muslim rights group Perkasa, told the British news outlet. "We must defend 'Allah' because this is our religious obligation. I hope other communities, including Christians, understand this."