Only Muslims have the right to refer to their god as Allah, a Malaysian appeals court ruled Monday, setting off angry outcries among Christians and opposition political leaders that the government is oppressing minority faiths.
The name of Allah has been used for more than a century in the Malay language, having been adopted from Arabic long before Malaysia became a state and the Malay people were legally obliged to follow Islam.
But in 2008, the government Interior minister banned use of the Muslim deity's name by other religions, arguing that it was justified on the basis of public order. A lower court ruled in 2009 that the minister had overstepped his authority and ordered the ban abolished, which triggered religious violence that left dozens of churches and several Muslim places of worship destroyed.
"It is our judgment that there is no infringement of any constitutional rights" by restricting the use of Allah to Islam, wrote the appellate court's chief judge, Mohamed Apandi Ali. He added that the name Allah was "not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity."
A commentary in the Malaysia Chronicle called the court decision "flawed," noting that the panel of three Muslim judges grounded their ruling in an unsolicited interpretation of what is or isn't integral to Christianity, rather than making a decision based on law.
"Hence the court has clearly overstepped its boundaries into the realm of theological discourse, and more critically, breached the Article 3 of the Federal Constitution where other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony," the commentary stated.
A challenge to the 2008 ban was brought by The Herald, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia that has long referred to God as Allah in its Malay-language weekly publication.
Herald editor Lawrence Andrew called the ruling "a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities," the Associated Press reported. He said he would appeal to the nation's highest judicial body, the Malaysian Federal Court.The ruling and its implications drew worldwide coverage, including reports on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, two widely read news sites in the Muslim world.
"We are of the view that this decision affects fundamental religious rights of the minorities in Malaysia," Viola De Cruz, president of the Catholic Lawyers Society, told Washington-based The Christian Post. "To find that the minority must yield to the majority also sends a frightening message that the minorities' rights are subject to the whims and fancies of the majority."
Asian media called the ruling a further reflection of religious politicking by Prime Minister Najib Razak and his United Malays National Organization.
The appeals court decision "coincides with heightened ethnic and religious tension in Malaysia after a polarizing May election in which the long-ruling coalition was deserted by urban voters," the South China Morning Post observed in its report.
Razak narrowly held on to power in the May election, and he has continued to press affirmative action for ethnic Malays to bolster his position ahead of a party assembly later this month, the newspaper said.
Muslims make up about 60% of Malaysia's 27 million population, with 20% adhering to Buddhism, 9% Christian and 6% Hindu, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“There was no problem nor did it create tension between Muslims and non-Muslims," the Borneo Post said of the traditional reference to Allah by all faiths in Malaysia. The newspaper quoted a Christian minister, James Masing, as saying he was saddened by the ruling and warned that the Malaysian government "must not politicize religion."