March 10 was cause for celebration for many Christians in Malaysia, as the High Court in Kuala Lumpur issued a landmark ruling that could have wide-reaching implications for how millions of people worship, particularly in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Justice Nor Bee Ariffin ruled that Jill Ireland — a Christian from Sarawak — was constitutionally allowed to use the word ‘Allah’ in prayer and religious practice, dismissing the government’s arguments that to do so would incite panic among the Muslim population.
Nor Bee’s decision ends the latest chapter of a marathon legal battle between Ireland and the state, starting 13 years ago when she was detained at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and a number of CDs in her possession were confiscated by the authorities.
The seizure was, the government later claimed, because the CDs had the word ‘Allah’ printed on them — a word banned for use by Christians in Malaysia under a 1986 Home Ministry directive.
Ireland later sued the government successfully for the return of her property, but the issue of right to worship remained in question until last week.
The casual observer may ask why Christians are using the term ‘Allah’ in the first place. However, it is one of many idiosyncrasies in multicultural Malaysia that in Bahasa Malaysia — the national language — ‘Allah’ is the ubiquitous term for ‘God’, adopted by Muslims and Christians alike.
Ireland’s counsel successfully argued that the ban infringed on her constitutional rights to worship, and that the offending CDs were for personal use and not for distribution.
Nor Bee agreed, citing discrepancies in the directive, which had apparently been the work of an overzealous senior civil servant and had not been signed off by any minister, so was not official policy.
She also rejected the government’s argument that allowing Christians to use ‘Allah’ in worship would cause confusion and panic among the Muslim population, as Ireland’s lawyers produced affidavits from multiple Muslims, who said there was no such confusion.
The government failed to produce any evidence to the contrary, which led Nor Bee to allude that its confusion and panic defense was not the reason its directive in the first place, more a concocted excuse.
Legal observers have already drawn parallels to the Catholic Church’s dispute with the government, which came to a head in 2015. Similarly, the government had banned the Church from using ‘Allah’ in its periodical, ‘Herald’.
The Church lost its challenge at the Federal Court, with the adjudicating panel ruling 4-3 in the government’s favor.
However, while there are overt similarities in the two cases, the divergence is Ireland fought her case on constitutional grounds, based on the right to worship. The ‘Herald’ case was brought under legislation governing printing newspapers and magazines; constitutional issues were not raised.
Nevertheless, even an average church lawyer would have followed the Ireland case closely and would now be considering whether a challenge is feasible.
Meanwhile, Christians will be enjoying the High Court decision but there are almost certain to be ramifications.
Such is the divisive nature of governance in Malaysia that Muslims and Christians are pitted against one another in a relationship that is at best prickly, at worst fractious with occasional acts of violence.
The central parties of the government coalition — the Malay nationalist Umno and its splinter Bersatu — both champion themselves as the nation’s defender of Islam.
So, like a coiled python, the government has since the early 1980s sought to gradually squeeze the influence of Christianity nationwide.
Coupled with this, the government also has a track record of trampling on the constitution as and when it sees fit, while ignoring the judiciary in cases that do not goes its way.
Its primary weapon during this time has been the much reviled Department of Islamic Development — or Jakim to use its colloquial term — in effect, a religious police force.
Jakim’s heavy handed tactics would periodically make the headlines for harassment of other religions or raids on places of worship on the pretext of proselytization of Muslims.
The situation came to a head in 2014 when officers of the Selangor religious department raided the Bible Society of Malaysia without a warrant and using the threat of force, confiscating more than 300 items of religious literature.
Actions like these have sought to drive a deep wedge between Muslims and Christian communities on Peninsular Malaysia, both eyeing each other across invisible lines with guarded suspicion.
However, in the more inclusive eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, life is much more relaxed. By and large, they do not concern themselves with the racial and religious tit-for-tat that goes on “over there”.
Christianity is the majority faith in East Malaysia but religious tolerance as a whole is much greater than the divided peninsula. The local authorities have even been known to look the other way when Muslims have converted to Christianity, a serious crime at the other end of the Riau archipelago.
It therefore stands to reason that draconian directives from a central government people barely recognize prove to be an assault on their way of life, as Ireland has proven.
So, while Christians nationwide have cause for celebration in the Ireland case, it’s a fair bet that the reasons for doing so will be quite different, depending on whether you are from Kuala Lumpur or Kuching.
Meanwhile, as the self-styled defender of Islam, the government is unlikely to take this lying down — even if it has shown its contempt for due process in the past. Cabinet members have already spoken of an appeal. After which, there is the apex court.
Ireland’s case may be a landmark decision in judicial terms, but it is still a long and difficult journey from here.
It may even prove to be a pyrrhic victory, after all.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.