KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A recent court ruling that prohibits a publication of the Roman Catholic Church in this Muslim-majority country from using the word “Allah” to represent the Christian God has far from settled the contentious issue.

A banner outside the Court of Appeal on the day of the verdict translates as, “The name of Allah belongs to Islam.” – Celine Fernandez

On Oct. 14 Malaysia’s court of appeal reversed a lower court ruling handed down in 2009 when it said that despite widespread use of the word Allah among Malay-speaking Christians, it was “not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.”

The ruling has sparked outrage among some Christians, who feel their right to practice their faith has been trampled on. The archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Murphy Pakiam, who brought the case against the government, said that the three judges were “grossly misinformed” in concluding that the word Allah was not “essential” to the Christian faith.

An Islamic non-governmental organization, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, has responded to the outcry by telling Christians to migrate to another country if they can’t accept the sovereignty of Islam.

The Catholic Church says it will file an application for appeal against the ruling in the next 30 days. But S. Selvarajah, one of the lawyers for the Catholic Church, said it could take two to three months before the Federal Court decides whether to allow the appeal to be heard.

If it does decide to hear the appeal, Malaysia’s highest court is set to make a final judgment in the case in the coming months.

“In every case, we expect the right thing to be done but in this case, it was not,” said Mr. Selvarajah.

Haniff Khatri Abdulla represents a group siding with the government in a legal dispute over whether a publication of the Roman Catholic Church has the right to use the word Allah to refer to the Christian God. The Court of Appeal ruled last week that it may not.

Haniff Khatri Abdulla is a lawyer representing the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association, or MACMA, a group siding with the government in the legal dispute. In a recent e-mail exchange with The Wall Street Journal’s Celine Fernandez he shared his thoughts on behalf of the lawyers representing the six state Islamic religious councils who are appellants in the case.

Edited excerpts to follow:

WSJ: How does the court’s ruling impact the rights of all religions as protected by the federal Constitution? In other words, should Muslims have more rights under the Constitution than Christians or other believers? Is that ultimately the effect of this ruling?

Mr. Haniff: Firstly, the Court of Appeal judgment is in line with the supreme law of the land, being the Federal Constitution, which pursuant to Article 3 (1) therein states as follows: “Islam is the religion of the federation, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the federation.”

This does not mean that any other religion apart from Islam cannot be practiced in its fullest, since each and every member of the non-Islamic religion has the right to practice each and every integral part of its religion without interference by the state. This is also stated very clearly under Article 11(3) of the Federal Constitution.

Therefore, any non-Islamic religious group has the absolute right to practice its religion so long as it can, when legally required, substantiate that the element of its practice that comes into question, is an integral part of its religion.

Hence, to put the question in its correct perspective, it is not about Muslims having more rights under the Federal Constitution than believers of other faiths, but it is about Islam having been accepted as the religion of the federation, being placed at a higher position than any other religion, under the constitution, the supreme law of the land.

That is why the Court of Appeal, correctly, had to define the sub phrase in Article 3(1) of the constitution, being “but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony” to mean that the position of Islam cannot be compromised by the practice of another religion, if that practice is not an integral part of that religion.

The findings of the Court of Appeal, based on the evidence available before it, that the use of the phrase “Allah” is not an integral part of the Christian religion, would therefore constitutionally disallow Christians of Malaysia from using that specific phrase in reference to  God in Christianity context.

WSJ: Critics of the ruling say it will undermine Malaysian unity and isn’t in keeping with the country’s history of adhering to a more moderate form of the faith. Do you disagree?

Mr. Haniff: Firstly, it is difficult for me to respond to this question because, to my humble understanding, there is no such thing as practicing a religion in moderation or otherwise. It is either one practices a religion or not, there is no half way.

It is also my humble understanding that the unity of Malaysians has always been preserved on the basis that in Islam we are required to respect every other religion, so long as it does not require Muslims to compromise in their  religion.

Prior to, and since independence, there were not many occasions in which the courts were asked to determine issues involving claims or cross claims of religions or religious beliefs.

However, as each member of the society tends to believe that their rights have to be recognized, despite the basic structure of Malaysian society having already being defined by the Federal Constitution, we find more and more disputes of this nature being brought before the courts. When that happens, it then becomes the duty of the courts to resolve these disputes, regardless of the sensitivity and emotions surrounding them, in line with prevailing provisions of the constitution, statutes and laws. Courts cannot constitutionally sweep disputes under the carpet.

It is not the ruling of the Court of Appeal which will undermine the unity of Malaysians, because it is for each and every Malaysian to appreciate and understand the constitution, which has kept, and should keep, Malaysians united.

WSJ: Father Lawrence, the editor of the Herald [the Roman Catholic publication at the heart of the case], said he was “dismayed and disappointed” that a judgment could be made allowing the use of Allah in the Malay-language Bible but preventing it from use in the weekly publication. How do you respond to that comment?

Mr. Haniff: Again, it is very important to understand the full scope and extent of the Court of Appeal decision. The issue of whether the Malay-language Bible should or should not contain the phrase “Allah” was not a subject matter before the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

A Court of law, can only determine issues which are before it based on the evidence and arguments adduced and tendered by parties appearing before it. Hence, this Court of Appeal was not the forum to determine the issue of whether the Malay-language Bible should or should not be using the phrase “Allah”.

That is why, I would conclude that the decision of the Court of Appeal only goes as far as prohibiting the Archbishop from using the phrase “Allah” in the Herald, and nothing beyond that.

WSJ: The Christian Federation of Malaysia says that about 60% of the approximately 2.6 million Christians in the country of 28 million use the word “Allah” to refer to God. The Herald has said it needs to use the word to respectfully reflect the preferences of its Malay-speaking readers. Why shouldn’t the Herald be allowed to do that?

Mr. Haniff: Without disputing the statistics quoted in your above question, one must not be swayed by emotions or sensitivities when faced with a conundrum of resolving a cross claim of this nature by way of legal dispute. In any general legal dispute before a court there will always be one party who will not be satisfied with the court verdict. That is the norm.

Nevertheless, it is not the issue of the preferences of the Malay-speaking readers of the Herald which is to be considered in resolving this legal dispute, but it is the issue of whether the correct translation of the word God in  English  into the Malay language is “Allah”. This is why I would stress that if any person objectively reads the judgments of the Court of Appeal, one would come to the conclusion that this matter is not about the battle of scriptures, but purely an issue of language and translation, and nothing beyond that.

WSJ: In some Muslim countries, including nearby Indonesia, Christians use the word “Allah.” Why is there such intense opposition in Malaysia? What do you fear would happen should the Catholic Church be allowed to use the word in its newspaper?

Mr. Haniff: This often-quoted analogical reference to Indonesia or even to the Arab speaking nations, is not only wrong in the circumstances of this dispute, but is also, legally in error. The position in Indonesia must be seen in the light of the development of the society in Indonesia, post-independence. That structure of the society is definitely and undeniably not prevalent in Malaysia.

Furthermore, as already clarified, Malaysia has its own written Federal Constitution which has identified the basic structure of Malaysian society, amongst which Islam is placed as the  religion of the federation.

WSJ: The Catholic Church has said it will appeal. Why are you confident your side will prevail?

Mr. Haniff: Your question is premature since legally speaking the solicitors for the various state religious councils and Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association (MACMA), are yet to be served with the appeal papers.

Also, there are two stages before the Herald can bring their appeal to the Federal Court. First the Herald must file an application to the Federal Court to seek leave to allow them to Appeal to the Federal Court. Only upon the Herald’s success seeking leave from the Federal Court, will the Herald be able to lodge the official Notice of Appeal to the Federal Court, upon which the appeal is then deemed to have begun.

source: http://blogs.wsj.com