Saturday, January 16, 2010

Who Owns the Name of God? Part II: Malaysia and Conflict at the Nexus of Law, Ethnicity, Culture, Politics and Religion

I have written about the controversy that arose in Malaysia over the decision by Christians to use the word Allah as the way to identify their conception of the Deity. Larry Catá Backer, Who Owns the Name of God? The Malaysian Government Knows!, Law at the End of the Day, Nov. 5, 2009). Allah, of course, is an Arabic word (الله‎,)--and over the course of the last millennium and a half has come to be associated with a peculiar reference to the Deity, that is, to the Deity associated with Islamic cosmology. But it is also a referent to the Deity generally. Ownership of the term, and therefore, of the legitimate expression of faith in and a connection to the ultimate Referent itself (that is to the Deity) is tinged with important consequences, none of them particularly Godly: power, legitimacy, subversion of competitor faith communities, categorization for disparate treatment in law, social and political relations, and the like.

All of these issues were in play in Malaysia, a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and sometimes turbulent political society.
The case began two years ago when The Herald, the Roman Catholic Church’s weekly Malaysian publication, filed a suit against the government. The Herald has argued that the word “Allah” predates Islam and is used by Arabic-speaking non-Muslims to refer to God. It filed the suit in order to continue to use the word “Allah” in its Malay language newspaper. The government had issued the ban on the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims in the 1980s, but the law was never enforced. Just in the last few years the government began enforcing the law and confiscating Bibles that contained the word “Allah.” In response to the High Court’s decision, the government appealed the ruling last week. It maintains that “Allah” is an Islamic word and if used by non-Muslims could confuse Muslims into converting to those faiths. Ethan Cole Christian Post, Eight Church Arson Attack After Malaysia's Allah Ruling, Christianity Today, Jan. 12, 2010.
The "ruling has been opposed by Muslim groups, and the Malay-rights group Pribumi Perkasa [in Malay] has called for demonstrations." Malaysia High Court allows non-Muslims to use 'Allah' as translation for 'God', Jurist, Jan. 2, 2010.

The case itself is important in its own right. The High Court suggested a jurisdictional impediment to the law. In this case that impediment centered on the limits of a state's power to mediate between religion in th use of the language employed to indicate reference to the Deity as their faith communities understand the notion. The government's prudential concerns--confusion, practical effects on its ability to limit the effectiveness of Christian evangelism, etc. was not strong enough to overcome this textual impediment. For the moment, however, the decision represents a paper victory. "The High Court ruling in favour of the Herald, which argued for the right to use "Allah" in its Malay-language section, was suspended last week pending an appeal, after the government argued the decision could cause racial conflict. Since then, churches have been hit with Molotov cocktails, splashed with black paint and had windows smashed with stones, triggering tighter security at places of worship nationwide." Romen Bose, Malaysian Catholics' Lawyers Targeted in 'Allah' Row, AFP, Jan. 14, 2010.

The case presented an interesting issue of Constitutional interpretation of articles 11 and 12 of the Malaysian Constitution. Article 11 provides in relevant part: "(1) Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it. . . . . (4) State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam."   Article 11(2) provides that
Every religious group has the right -
  • (a) to manage its own religious affairs;
  • (b) to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes; and
  • (c) to acquire and own property and hold and administer it in accordance with law.
Article 12(2) provides that "Every religious group has the right to establish and maintain institutions for the education of children in its own religion, and there shall be no discrimination on the ground only of religion in any law relating to such institutions or in the administration of any such law."  The issue of religion within the Malaysian constitutional order is explored in Backer, Larry Catá, Theocratic Constitutionalism: An Introduction to a New Global Legal Ordering (July 28, 2008). Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2008; Islamic Law and Law of the Muslim World Paper No. 08-44 (Section IV.D.).  There I suggested that
an element of toleration within a system of privilege (of Islam) and subordination (of all others) is made necessary by the construction of state organization on the basis of a dominant race religious construct—the Malay. Yet, Islam’s privilege is constrained by the constitution itself.361 And a system of conventionally described fundamental rights is specified.362 Moreover, the courts have resisted a constitutional interpretation that would use Article 3 as the engine through which Islamist constitutionalism could be imported. Backer, Larry Catá, Theocratic Constitutionalism: An Introduction to a New Global Legal Ordering, at Section IV.D.1 (referring to article 3(1) that provides "Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.").
In working their way through these provisions, the High Court appears to have adopted a middle course, construing all of the provisions together to derive governing principles.  As summarized in a recent report:
High Court judge Datuk Lau Bee Lan also declared that an order by the Home Minister banning the use of the word as illegal, null and void. Lau, in her oral decision today, held that the Herald had the constitutional right to use the word in the magazine to propagate the Christian religion but not Islam. She said that pursuant to Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution, it is an offence for non-Muslims to use the word 'Allah' to Muslims to propagate the religion. But it is not an offence for non-Muslims to use the word to non-Muslims for the purpose of religion, she added. Pursuant to Articles 11 and 12 of the Federal Constitution, the Herald had the constitutional right to use the word in respect of instruction and education of the congregation in the Christian religion. Article 10 allowed it to use the word in the exercise of its right to freedom of speech and expression, she said. Lau said thus the decision by the Home Minister prohibiting Herald publications from using the word 'Allah' in the magazine was illegal, null and void. She said the minister had also failed to adduce evidence that the use of word would threaten national security and create misunderstanding and confusion among Muslims. Time Leonard and Joseph Masilamany, Court: 'Allah' Not Exclusive to Muslims, Sun to Surf, Dec. 31, 2009.
The opinion, when more readily available may be worth a closer read. Yet it is the limitations of that decision, rather than its widely heralded permissions to the Christian community that deserve more attention. The High Court effectively split the baby. The Court permitted the use of the term 'Allah' within Christian faith communities, but continues the ban on the use of the term in communications between members of different faith communities. Or better put, as between non-Muslims, the use of the term 'Allah' as a referent to the Divinity must be a matter of constitutional indifference to the state. On the other hand, the use of the term 'Allah' is preserved solely to Muslims in communications among Muslims, or with Muslims by members of other faith communities. In a sense, in Malaysia, the constitution allocated ownership rights in the word 'Allah' to Islam, but concedes a limited use right, in private, among members of other faith communities.

Thus understood, it telling that even such a relatively mild concession has provoked a significant degree of action. Muslim groups have opposed the ruling.
The court decision is not right and we are planning to hold a major demonstration to protest this," Syed Hassan Syed Ali, secretary general of Malay rights group Pribumi Perkasa told AFP. He and 50 other Malay activists held a small protest over the ruling outside a central mosque Friday. "We fear that the court victory will mean that Christian missionaries will now use the word, confusing (the identity of) Muslims and undermining religious harmony," he said. Federation of Malay Students' Association advisor Reezal Merican said although the court decision had to be respected, the government needed to appeal it. "We want to live in peace with all religions here but the word Allah has traditionally in Malaysia been used to represent the Muslim God, which is different from Christianity, and this must be addressed," he told AFP. Northern Perak state mufti Harussani Zakaria was also critical of the verdict, calling it "an insult to Muslims in this country," according to the influential Malay-language Utusan Malaysia newspaper. Malaysian Muslim Activists Oppose 'Allah' Ruling, AFP, Jan. 1, 2010.

Perhaps in order to strengthen the political arguments made in court to support a law that meant to manage the relations between and the relative subordination of the different faith communities in Malaysia, certain members of the Muslim community appeared to take the issue directly to the Churches. "Police on Monday reported the eighth arson attack on a church in Malaysia since the High Court ruled that non-Muslims can use the word “Allah” to refer to God." Ethan Cole Christian Post, Eight Church Arson Attack After Malaysia's Allah Ruling, Christianity Today, Jan. 12, 2010.  More importantly, from the perspective of rule of law concerns, religious gropups have sought to attack the lawyers pressing the Christian case. "Malaysia's Catholic Church said Thursday the offices of its lawyers have been burgled and ransacked in the latest of a spate of attacks triggered by a row over the use of the word 'Allah.'" Romen Bose, Malaysian Catholics' Lawyers Targeted in 'Allah' Row, AFP, Jan. 14, 2010.

If this were the end of the story, one might be inclined to shrug the events off as the usual detritus of nasty competitions for dominance, in which law, religion, ethnicity and culture are deployed as the shock troops in battles for power-dominance in both its real and symbolic forms. First, members of the Muslim community have come forward to protect th eproperty of the Christian Churches.
In addition to security provided by police, Muslim non-government organisations have also begun to patrol church areas in the Klang Valley – an area on the west coast that includes the capital Kuala Lumpur – where four churches were targets of arson attacks. Muslim volunteers began patrolling Monday night in two shifts, from 11 pm to 2 am and 4 am until dawn, according to Malaysia’s The Star newspaper. The Muslim NGO’s have committed to be the “eyes and ears” of the government, which has condemned the attacks on churches, to ensure the security of Christian places of worship. Ethan Cole Christian Post, Eight Church Arson Attack After Malaysia's Allah Ruling, Christianity Today, Jan. 12, 2010.
Significantly, Anwar Ibhrahim in his role as opposition leader, has also thrown his support behind the Christian community, and to some extent, behind the decision of the High Court (including its implicit limitations). Anwar Ibrahim, Statement on Church Bombings and Allah Issue, Jan. 10, 2010. His statement nicely weaves the strands of law, religion, politics, ethnicity and religion that are bound up in the issue of the ownership of the Word and the right of religious communities to use it among themselves and with others.
As a nation we struggle to uphold the spirit of unity that our founding fathers envisioned at independence. We must hold fast to Article 11 of the Federal Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and the right of religious groups to manage their own affairs. In such times the spirit of engagement and dialogue must transcend those voices that would seek to sow discord and enmity across our land. The people of Malaysia must unite against those who exploit race and religion to incite hatred for political gain. We must renew our commitment to religious understanding and religious freedom. This is a time that tests the resolve of all religions for peace and mutual respect. We must remember that the God who we worship is in fact the same God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. With respect to the use of the word Allah, for example, it cannot be disputed that Arabic speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews have collectively prayed to God as Allah throughout the last fourteen centuries. While sensitivities over its usage have arisen in Malaysia, the way to resolve these conflicts is not by burning churches and staging incendiary protests but by reasoned engagement and interreligious dialogue. Anwar Ibrahim, Statement on Church Bombings and Allah Issue, Jan. 10, 2010.
He cites to Koranic injunctions against disrespect of Christians and Jews, and reminds his readers of the actions of the early Caliphs in their relations with these faith communities. He then suggests the political dimension to the legal proceedings and the augmentation of religious sensitivities. "Much of the blame for the recent attacks can be placed at the doorstep of the UMNO-led BN ruling party. Its incessant racist propaganda over the Allah issue and the inflammatory rhetoric issued by government controlled mainstream media especially, Utusan Malaysia, are reprehensible. Such wanton acts of provocation are indeed criminal and demonstrate the duplicity of the 1Malaysia campaign." Id.

And, indeed, the OneMalaysia campaign has all the elements necessary for the cloaking of discord by the language of unity. "Lim Kit Siang, the advisor of DAP said 'Racial politics had only increased in recent times, and that the 'One Malaysia' campaign had failed to unite the country. There is a further polarisation of race and religion, with the hardening of intolerant attitudes and stances, creating situations unseen or unheard of in the previous history of the nation. Let all patriotic Malaysians of goodwill recognise the danger signals to our plural society.'" 1Malaysia campaign not successful in uniting people – Kit Siang, Malaysia Today, Aug. 31, 2009.  It is not a hard matter to go from a campaign of European Union style union in diversity campaigns to old fashioned unity campaigns in which diversity is managed away.

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