Since yesterday, the press, the internet and the blogsphere had been abuzz with the issue over the right to use the word 'Allah' in the name of freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of religion as laid down by the Malaysian constitution.
Yesterday Justice Datuk Lau Bee Lan held that the Herald, a Catholic weekly magazine had the constitutional right to use the word 'Allah' in its publication to propagate the Christian religion but not Islam. She said that pursuant to Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution, it was an offence for non-Muslims to use the word 'Allah' to Muslims to propagate their religion
A brief background to the case is as follows:
On Jan 7, the Home Minister approved the Herald's publishing permit for the period Jan 1 to Dec 31, 2009, on condition that the word "Allah" was not used in it and the words "Restricted" must be printed on the weekly's front page whereby it could only be circulated to Christians and at churches only.
In response, Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam filed for a judicial review on the usage of the word 'Allah' in the church's publicatons, naming the Home Ministry and the goverment as respondents.
Throughout the case, many arguments had been put put forth by involved parties to the issue, which make us realise how unique and complex our nation and its pluralism is. Suffice to say, this case certainly impressed upon my mind that the security, peace and harmony of the nation is well beyond the ambit of legal wranglings and cold letter of the law, even of the constitution. Beyond legal and constitutional quiblings, I dare say that we as a nation are in dire need of mutual respect, sensitivity and just plain old goodwill among the various segments of the population, of various cultural and religious traditions. The questions brought forth for judiciary review are very much part of our current political discourse even when divorced from their specific judicial setting.
It has been argued by non-Muslims mainly that the word 'Allah' is not exclusive to the Muslims and predate the birth of Islam. For the Muslims, this is just stating the obvious as it is the basic teaching of their religion to enjoin mankind to return to the older monetheism brought by Abraham, long before the coming of Islam. So in the evolution of religion then, it was the conception and idea of God that was debated and not just the plain word 'Allah' or his name. Such evolution is furthermore in line with the dynamics of cultural change, which does not involve a whole culture changing overnight, but proceeds by gradual adjustment and adaptation. So the argument that the word 'Allah' is not exclusive to Muslims and predate Islam is not quite to the point.
Within the specific context of Malaysia, however, the word 'Allah' has assumed its contextual and specific meaning as understood and held by the religion of Islam and the Muslims.Now, the formulation, understanding and interpretation of laws has always been everywhere,and in history, a matter of context in response to specific requirements. Therefore in my humble opinion, the argument that the word has an earlier meaning in history, and for other groups elsewhere, should not carry that much weight in the contextual interpretation of our own laws.
Now, there is the question of the freedom of speech and expression under our constitution. I think we all know and understand that such freedom is conditional and not without qualification It is almost a cliche to say that freedom of speech and expression carries with it responsibilities and due regards for the sensitivity of others.
In fact in this case, the Honorable Justice had given due regards to this requirement of the law. Bound by the wordings of Article 11( 4), she had made it clear that the word 'Allah' is permitted the Herald only for specific use of Christian congregation and for the teaching of Christianity to Christians. It would be an offence if the word 'Allah' is used to propagate religion to Muslims.
This is of course the contentious point raised by many. If it is of such limited 'freedom of speech and expression' , amounting to some sort of 'internal' Christian use, why is the Herald bent on using the word 'Allah'? Why not 'Tuhan', or 'Jesus'? This of course gives ground for suspicion among Muslims of intention to convert Muslims to Christianity.On this score, of course, we would be moving into areas quite beyond the immediate case before the court. As we know, beyond formal question of law and jurisprudence,there is a broad area of living which is not quite amenable to the court standards of what is right or wrong.
For now the law has made its declaration, giving literal meaning to the words of the law and the constitution. Judging by its declaration, the court had confined its role to defining the extent and limit of the freedom of speech and expression, and the freedom of religion in this case. It has been careful to exclude the issue of implementing and policing the law. While granting the Herald the right to use the word ' Allah', it has also clearly defined the extent and limit of that use. While it is a right for the Herald to use the word 'Allah' within their fold for their particular use, it is illegal beyond this.
As for the Home Affairs and the goverment, it remains for them to make a more convincing case in its appeal against the decision on the ground of national security and the confusion it might engender among Muslims by the use of the word 'Allah' by non-Muslims.It is their failure to make a convincing case that forced the court to fall back on the constitutional provision itself in the first instance. In addition, it is very much the responsibility of the Home Affairs and the goverment to implement, police and wisely manage what the court has decided. I suspect an inherent difficulty in its exercise of duty would be determining what constitutes 'propagation to Muslims' in this age of mass communication, including publishing,with its free flow of ideas, including religious ones.