The Catholic Herald and the "Allah" controversy
by Eugene Yapp, NECF Secretary-General
WHAT does the Court of Appeal's decision on 22 August 2013 mean for Christians who use the word "Allah"?
The decision on that day was the dismissal of the motion by the Catholic Church which sought to strike out the Government's appeal against the earlier judgement of Justice Lau Bee Lan in the High Court, which permitted the Catholic newspaper, The Herald, to use the word "Allah".
It is important not to confuse this dismissal with the appeal proper or substantive appeal brought by the Government. Christians have not yet lost the appeal nor any legal rights to use the word. The appeal proper will be heard on 10 Sept 2013. Here, much prayer and intercession before the Lord is needed.
Points to note
What happened at the hearing before the Court of Appeal? The Catholic Church, in seeking to strike out the Government's appeal, based its arguments on the 10-Point Solution given by the Cabinet in April 2011 which amongst others, 1) allowed Bahasa Malaysia Bibles to be imported into the country and; 2) that there should be no restrictions for people in both East and West Malaysia to bring along and use their BM Bibles and Christian materials throughout the country.
The counter argument to the Catholic Church's use of the 10-Point Solution is that the solution does not refer to The Herald's case. It was argued that although the Cabinet was fully aware of The Herald case when it issued the 10-Point Solution, the cabinet directive did not at all touch on the case. This demonstrates that the cabinet did not intend to deal with the issues within The Herald case. The Court of Appeal was therefore of the opinion that the issue is very much alive. The 10-Point Solution, by its name was meant to be a "solution" only to the importation of the Alkitab and the use of it in churches for devotion and worship. It was not meant to question the government's appeal nor was it conditional upon the court's decision.
The arguments presented at the Court of Appeal and her subsequent decision provides an interesting scenario that could follow at the hearing of the appeal proper. Based on the 10-Points Solution, one can venture to suggest that there is the possibility that Christians may use the word "Allah" - but only in the use of the Alkitab and other Christian materials on private occasions such as in homes, church services or in Christian events. However, when it comes to the use of the word in the public space like publications pursuant to the Printing Presses and Publication Act, or in social media, or other public usage, that may be a different matter altogether.
Be that as it may, the Christian Federation of Malaysia immediately issued a press release following the Court of Appeal's decision on 22 August and also attached its fact sheet "When, Why and How Christians Use the Word Allah" with the hope that our factual perspective on the issue will prevail in the courts of our land.
Three days after the CFM released its press statement with the fact sheet, The Malay Mail Online ran an article, "'Christians started it, Muslim activists say of Allah row'" in which it reported Muslim activists alleging that there is a global Christian evangelical conspiracy behind the "Allah" row with a clandestine agenda. According to the report, Christians are now seen as more vocal and aggressive, even going against the Rulers' decree and the Constitution to preach and spread their beliefs and propaganda.
It remains unclear where these Muslims activists gathered the idea that there is a "global Christian evangelical conspiracy behind the 'Allah' row". The position of the Malaysian Church in her insistence to continue to use the word "Allah" has always been based on the constitutional right of freedom of religion for every persons to profess and practice his religion and that every religious group has a right to manage its own affairs.
Freedom of religion
This is a constitutional position and every Christian as citizens of this land must uphold this right because the right to freedom of religion is a fundamental liberty afforded to all human beings as creatures created in the image of God. As beings created in His image, we all have the freedom to seek after, identify and address our creator and to worship Him according to our convictions. To deny any human beings this right or to forgo this right is akin to denying God's act of creating human beings and endowing them with dignity and free will to worship Him in the way people are convicted to. Christians must therefore hold fast to the word of truth as revealed and shine as salt and light in the quest to maintain religious liberty both on paper and in practice.
A generic noun
In addition to our constitutional rights, there are also good and cogent historical reasons for insisting on the use of the word based on modern linguistic philosophy and understanding. Contrary to assertions by Malay Muslims scholars that "Allah" is a personal noun or a personal name, comparative philology and historical linguistics of cognate Semitic languages have demonstrated that "Allah" is not a personal name that refers exclusively to a unique individual or that it refers to only a supreme deity of Islam.
The actual usage of the word when viewed in relation to other syntactical categories allows for a generic or a range of meanings. This demonstrates the truth that the word "Allah" is indeed a common noun as opposed to a personal noun or even a personal name.
To insist that BM-speaking Christians discontinue with the usage of the word in the Alkitab and in worship simply because it is said the word refers to a personal god of Islam or that the word should be substituted for another word or name is ignorant of the facts and is therefore tantamount to rejecting truth for falsehood. As Christians who are the people of God, we are called to live by the light and in truth and not in ignorance.
Our destiny: A multi-cultural and multi-religious nation
While arguments may abound, Christians must constantly bear in mind that when called to give a defence of our faith, it is not for the sake of argument but to be a witness and testimony to the truth of the Gospel and the kingdom of God. That the kingdom of God is here and now but not yet, should propel all Christians to continually seek the welfare of the city and nation and to contribute every effort to realise the destiny of this nation.
Having a conversation with our friends on this subject, engaging this issue before the courts, clarifying the Christian position on when, why and how we use the word "Allah" and in the process seeking and maintaining religious liberty is but a small effort in realising the full destiny of this nation as a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. This is critical in view of our current social-political climate and the mission of the church in this state of affairs is to provide that moral fabric and foundation so that society may live in a state of harmony and the nation prosper to the glory of our great God.
The Allah / Alkitab controversy has gone on for some time and for Malaysian society, polarisation is now clearly visible on all counts. Perhaps the time has now come for all Malaysians to seek harmony and reconciliation away from inherited cultural trappings and religious prejudice and to begin to see truth for facts. Christians may make provisions for this avenue by familiarising themselves with why we insists on using the word "Allah" and then converse with those around us so that all Malaysians may be informed and able to distinguish truth from propaganda. This is an indispensable part of Christian witness which we are all called to do.
There are also other efforts that can be put in place, so Christians must never forget the call to be fervent in our good works for community interest and wellbeing as well.
Nevertheless, scripture reminds us that such events and happenings are not just struggles "against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12; NIV).
Therefore, prayer and the spiritual fervour for the Lord's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven must increase and be consistent.