BY JENNIFER GOMEZ
Published: 6 July 2014
The struggle for the right of non-Muslims to use the word Allah in Malaysia is not over, a United Nations official said, suggesting that moderate Muslims and intellectuals get on board to lend weight to the church’s fight.
UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said many Muslims believe the court ruling undermines the credibility of Islam.
“A vast majority of Muslims will agree that it undermines Islam by turning Allah into a personal name of the Islamic God," he said in a phone interview from Germany.
Muslim scholars and clerics, both locally and worldwide, have criticised the ban, pointing out that the word predates Islam and it meant "God" in Arabic. Former Perlis mufti Datuk Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, known to supporters as the "voice of reason" and to critics as a "promoter of liberalism", was one of those who had criticised the ban.
He had previously said that as long as the word Allah was used to refer to “the Most Supreme Being”, the non-Muslims could use the word.
"So actually it is a non-issue. Muslims believe in one God. So how can we say your God is different from mine?" he had asked.
Then there is PAS MP Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusuf Rawa, who had visited about 30 churches nationwide with his message of peaceful coexistence and that Allah was for all, and his efforts to promote interfaith dialogues.
Vocal Muslim activist Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, who heads Islamic non-governmental organisation Islamic Renaissance Front, in a comment last October on the legal restriction on the use of the word Allah, had said: “The way Muslims are treated here is condescending. It’s ridiculous to think that if other religions use the word Allah, us Muslims would start converting to other religions.”
Other Muslim activists who have also publicly disagreed with the ban include Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, who had turned up with a group of people at a church in Klang to show solidarity with Christians at the height of the controversy over the use of the word Allah, and Zainah Anwar, co-founder of the Islamic group Sisters in Islam, which advocates equal rights for women, human rights and justice.
Meanwhile, Bielefeldt also said that the fight to use the word Allah was not a Catholic issue but a freedom of religion issue.
"Freedom of religion is a right of all human beings, it’s a human right, it’s a universal right and so it cannot be the business of the state to ban the use of the word Allah," he said.
He pointed out that in the first place, the ban on the use of the word Allah in the Catholic weekly, Herald, was not imposed by the court but by the Home Ministry.
Bielefeldt said the Federal Court ruling on June 23 which upheld the ban was unprecedented.
"My reaction and that of everyone else was how can this be possible, it is bizarre, strange and totally unacceptable," he added.
“In fact, this is not an infringement of human rights, it is a clear violation of human rights.”
He added that he was not aware of any comparable court decision in any other country that prohibited the use of the word by non-Muslims.
He pointed out that Christians in the Arab world had been using the word for thousands of years.
"If you read the New Testament in Arabic, Jesus is the son of Allah, because Allah is not the name of the Islamic God but a generic concept of God," he added.
Bielefeldt is also concerned that he has yet to get a response on a letter he had sent to the Malaysian government last November seeking clarification on the matter and voicing concern over the ban.
His letter was supported by UN Independent Expert on minority issues Rita Izsak and UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue.
"I am still waiting for a response, and hoping this can't be the final word of the government.
"It also can't be the final word of the judiciary," he said, referring to the Federal Court’s decision on June 23 to deny the church’s application to challenge the Home Ministry’s ban.
This is the second time Bielefeldt has weighed in on the Allah issue. He had issued a press statement in Geneva late last year urging the Malaysian government to reverse its ban on Herald.
In the statement, Bielefeldt, along with Izsak and La Rue, had warned that the Allah case would have far-reaching implications for minority groups in Malaysia.
However, he felt there was no danger that other countries would take the cue from Malaysia and ban non-Muslims from using the word Allah.
"I don't think many countries will follow because it is too absurd, it will not be a popular demand in the Muslim world because the ban really undermines the credibility of Islam.
"I am optimistic this will not be a model for other Islamic countries to follow," he added.
The special rapporteur said he also expected the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) to take a position on the ban, adding that otherwise, they would run into problems with the international network of human rights institutions.
Bielefeldt also raised the seizure of the Bibles in Malay and Iban by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais), saying that it has created a climate of intimidation.
He hoped that the Malaysian spirit of appreciating and embracing diversity which the nation had portrayed in the past could be recaptured given recent developments that are cause for concern.
"There is a heritage of appreciating diversity that needs to be recaptured and I see this as the potential for Malaysia to rectify the strange developments of late," he added. – July 6, 2014.