The true importance of the ‘Allah’ issue

The Sultan of Selangor has weighed in on the ‘Allah’ issue. According to the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS), “His majesty the Selangor Sultan has made a decision and decreed that the word ‘Allah’ is a sacred word specific to Muslims and is strictly forbidden to use by any non-Muslim religion in Selangor as stated in a fatwa and gazetted on 18 February 2010.” Others have said much about the issue as well, with several groups giving different solutions to the matter.

Take a step back. Why so much anguish over the issue, religious reasons aside? It is because this issue impinges directly on religious freedom, as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

While the Federal Constitution states that Islam as the official religion, it also guarantees the religious freedom of all other religions and their right to regulate their own respective religions. The regulation of Islam is through state enactments, the role of the Sultan as the custodian of Islam and the Shariah courts. Their jurisdiction however, does not extend to non-Muslims.

Also, nowhere in the Federal Constitution does not restrict the religious freedom of Muslims. All that is restricted is the propagation of other religions towards Muslims.

According to the Federal Constitution, the Selangor Sultan’s words are of no effect, given he has acted beyond his powers in restricting the use of ‘Allah’ among non-Muslims. The same would be said of MAIS as well, should they take any action.

But what would happen if action were taken among non-Muslims using the word Allah? It would then be a test of the courts as the guardian of the Constitution.

Should the courts rule such actions as legally valid, it would be sanctioning the actions of MAIS against non-Muslims. This would put any assurance that non-Muslims would be untouched by syariah law to an end and would set the stage for further interference with non-Muslim rights.

However if such actions were ruled unconstitutional and legally invalid, the courts would have acted as a check against an unlawful use of legislative and executive power. It would also showcase that the tripartite system of government in Malaysia is well and alive.

Thus the importance of the ‘Allah’ issue is not in the use of the word itself. Its importance goes much further, in fact to the heart of religious freedom in Malaysia and is a test of whether the courts can guard against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ against religious minorities.

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A Christian lawyer who wants to contribute in his own small way towards national discourse.

Posted on 13 January 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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