A sensible move hitting a snag?


Masjid An-Naim and The Good Shepherd Church in Lutong, Miri stand as symbols of religious harmony evident in Sarawak today. — Photo by Ghaz Ghazali

I READ with great interest the MalaysiaKini report as quoted by The Borneo Post of May 16, 2023. The headline screamed ‘Allah ban: Putrajaya withdraws appeal’.

I remember reading about that ban 15 years ago. One Sarawakian named Jill Ireland had gone to Indonesia, bought compact discs and brought them home for her own use.

Problem: the discs contained the word ‘Allah’. On arrival in Malaysia, the discs were seized by the Customs on the directive of the Home Ministry.

Not happy, Jill sought help from the court of law in getting her discs back, citing her rights under the Malaysian Constitution to import publications in exercise of her right to practise religion and her right to religious education.

The High Court in Kuala Lumpur quashed the government ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ in Christian publications.

Unhappy, in March 2021, the government and the Home Ministry filed an appeal against that ruling.

Then on May 18, 2023, just a day before an initial scheduled case management of the appeal, a notice of discontinuance to the Court of Appeal was filed by the Attorney General Office on behalf of the appellants.

As I see it, although the government has dropped the entire appeal, there remains the question of what to do with the various legislations on the ban of the use of three other Arab words in addition to ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims in the states having those enactments.

This could be the snag, I think.

However, I think the government has taken the necessary action by working out an administrative directive on the use of those words and will propose to the Conference of Rulers on the best way out to handle this constraint.

We shall find out soon what the directive will be. Hopefully, it will provide wise guidance terms of correct behaviour among the leaders of the religious groups in this country so that racial harmony will be sustained for as long as possible.

On the face of it, this decision by the government to withdraw the appeal is a good move.

However, that does not mean that the Christian and other non-Muslim evangelists in Sarawak are free to convert the Muslims to Christianity or to any other non-Muslim faith.

No way. Look at Article 11 of the Constitution, and note well Clause (4) of that Article.

While on one hand every person has the right to profess and practise his or her religion, the government – federal, or state or ‘wilayah’ (territory) – has the right to enact a law to control the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.

Get that?

If they feel the urge to start proselytising among the Muslims, think again, and think hard.

Sensible Christian evangelists would pause and say the Lord’s Prayer “… Do not lead us into temptation.”

Incidentally, has anybody asked the real Arabs how they feel about a bunch of self-appointed ‘experts’, half-way around the world, making laws about who is allowed to speak Arabic?

The Home Minister has indicated that his ministry ‘is looking into creating a more comprehensive directive in tackling the issues surrounding the use of the word Allah’.

Although this is a bit vague to me at this stage, the move would be good, if it means getting together all the leaders of the religious fraternity in Malaysia to a roundtable discussion on the ‘dos and the don’ts’ in terms of propagation of religious teachings among each other’s flocks.

They may like to draw up a charter for religious harmony in Malaysia, or produce a Code of Conduct to be observed by ALL religious teachers.

The Sarawak model

In one of my past columns, I quoted sources from history books about the Christian missionaries from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) and how James Brooke, the Rajah, had warned them not to work among the Malays in Sarawak (Kuching) with the view to converting them into Christianity.

Instead, the missionaries worked among the Chinese and the Dayaks (Land and Sea).

This wise advice from the Rajah, I believe, has contributed to the racial and religious harmony that is evident in Sarawak today.

Even the propagation of the Gospel among the other people in the various districts, was self-regulated by the early church leaders. They confined their activities to certain localities to avoid duplication of effort.

For example, the Anglicans went off to Merdang, Lundu, Quop, Padawan, Banting, Simanggang, Betong, Kerian, Miri and Limbang, while the Catholic missionaries (1880s) focused on Kuching, Bau (Singghi), Serian, Mukah, Sibu.

(In Sibu, there were already a number of Christians among the settlers.)

The Methodists were concentrating on Sibu, Sarikei, Binatang and Kapit.

Later, the other missionaries such as those from Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) had chosen the Baram and Tinjar, Lawas and Bario as their areas of operations.

All of them were working and spreading the Word throughout Sarawak without getting in the way of each other.

A good example of how early Church leaders were behaving that pays dividends. Their code of conduct: Thou shalt not pinch each other’s members!

Thank God the missionaries came to stay. Now in the hands of the local missionaries, God’s work on earth is being carried out in accordance with the provisions of Article 11 of the man-made Federal Constitution. And the decision of the High Court to allow the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christian congregations during services and lessons in Christian doctrines in Bahasa Malaysia, helps them feel secure on earth in their own country.

We would like to see that religious harmony maintained and sustained as long as possible without too much interference from the government.

Let all the religious leaders in the country come out with a code of conduct by which Malaysians of all faiths may continue to live side by side – promoting their respective doctrines with good conscience, consulting, counselling, consorting and being good to each other.

And jointly praying for the safety of the country and its people.