MANY people have been asking for clarification and also my views on the ongoing “Allah”/Bible issue and the validity of the 10-point solution. This column will address this. I wish to place upfront a caveat that the views expressed here are my own in my personal capacity. As this issue is highly sensitive, I have tried my best to be as fair as possible, without taking sides.
1) I repeat what the Prime Minister and my cabinet colleagues, such as Khairy Jamaluddin and Nancy Shukri, have already stated publicly – the Cabinet has reconfirmed the validity and our support for the 10-point solution as was originally announced in April 2011. The 10-point solution was established by the Federal Government as a fair and amicable way to manage the polarity of views between the various religious groups, in particular Christians and Muslims, taking into account the laws of the country.
As stated in the 10-point solution, for Sabah and Sarawak, there is no restriction on the import and local printing of Bibles in any language, including Bahasa Malaysia/Bahasa Indonesia and indigenous languages (referred to collectively as the “Alkitab”), as the Government recognises that there is a large Christian community of indigenous origin in these two states. It is also in line with the spirit of the 18- and 20-point agreements, when Sabah and Sarawak became part of Malaysia. It has been argued that these agreements allowed for full freedom of religion in both states. As for Peninsular Malaysia, the Alkitab, whether printed in Malaysia or imported into Malaysia, must have the words “Christian Publication” and the cross sign must be placed on the front cover as imposed by the Government in the interests of the larger Muslim community in Peninsular Malaysia.
2) However, I would like to highlight a few recent developments, namely the Court of Appeal judgement on The Herald case in October 2013, the Sultan of Selangor’s decree in November 2013 and the recent speech by the Sultan of Kedah, which prohibits non-Muslims from using the word “Allah”. Whilst the Federal Constitution Article 11.1 stipulates that “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion” and Article 11.3 states that “every religious group has the right to manage its own affairs”, Article 11.4 however stipulates that “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.”
It is on this basis that relevant Islamic laws were enacted in 1988, which restrict non-Muslims from using “Allah” and various other words. For example, in the case of Selangor, 34 words are prohibited including Allah, Ulama, Haji, nabi, iman, injil, sheikh, insya Allah, fatwa, wahyu, syariah, etc.
3) There is no doubt that more than 300 Alkitabs which were confiscated by JAIS, at the Bible Society of Malaysia on Jan 2 were previously cleared by the Home Ministry since the Bible Society Malaysia has complied fully with the conditions prescribed under the 10-point solution. Indeed, since the announcement of the 10-point solution in April 2011, for more than two years, the Home Ministry has cleared for distribution thousands of Alkitabs in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.
4) As I understand it, JAIS acted on the basis of the relevant Islamic state laws and in particular the latest decree by the Sultan of Selangor in raiding the Bible Society of Malaysia. Under the Federal Constitution Article 3.2, the Sultan is the head of Islam in each state where there is a ruler and the King in the case of the other states. It is for this reason that while the Federal Government has established the 10-point solution, it is not at liberty to direct JAIS and the Selangor Government to comply with it and disregard the decree by the Sultan. It is also in this context that the Federal Government is not in the position to take disciplinary action against JAIS officers as per point 5 of the 10-point solution.
Our PM has clearly stated that the Federal Government confirms and supports the 10-point solution but we must abide by existing Federal and State laws. Having made its position clear at the Federal level, that is why two of my cabinet colleagues, Khairy and Nancy, have urged the Selangor Government to take a stand and play its part in dealing with this matter from a State perspective.
5) In the last two years, many people asked me three important questions on the 10-point solution vis-a-vis the consistency of related policies, laws and practice. I have been asked these questions at many private discussions and open forums and I wish to state clearly my own responses to these questions.
Question: How can the 10-point solution co-exist with the Islamic State Enactments? Are they incompatible?
In accordance with Federal Constitution Article 11.4, Islamic state laws were enacted to control and prohibit the propagation of non-Islamic faiths to Muslims. In Selangor, Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Amongst Muslims) Enactment of 1988 is a law passed by the Legislative Assembly of Selangor to control and restrict the propagation of non-Islamic religious doctrines and beliefs amongst persons professing Islam. The act of “propagation” is the crux of the matter. While the 10-point solution allows Christians and churches to use the Alkitab, which contains some of the 34 prohibited words, the 10-point solution does not condone the act of “propagation” of non-Muslim faiths to Muslims. That is an offence under the State Islamic enactments.
As mentioned earlier, the 10-point solution requires the Alkitab in Peninsular Malaysia to have on the front page the cross sign and the words “Christian Publication”. This is a pragmatic solution. This is akin to the practice of putting “non-halal” warnings on food items to inform Muslims to refrain from taking them. Instead of banning altogether non-halal food and drinks in the country, this practice allows non-Muslims to consume non-halal food and drinks and at the same time, making it clear to Muslims not to take them.
To reiterate, the 10-point solution does not condone non-Muslims propagating non-Islamic faiths to Muslims. In other words, the Alkitab is allowed on a conditional basis i.e. for use by Christians, their Churches and congregations and non-Muslims. However, if anyone uses the Alkitab or uses any of the prohibited words to propagate non-Islamic faiths to Muslims, then he will contravene the relevant Islamic laws. Clearly, it is not an offence for non-Muslims to sing the Selangor State Anthem which has the word “Allah” in the lyrics because merely singing or uttering the words in the anthem does not constitute “propagation”. Similarly, although the word “Haji” is one of the prohibited words, a non-Muslim who is addressing a Muslim with the Haji title is not committing an offence.
Another example: although the word “injil” is prohibited, the Federal Government and the Selangor State Government have not prohibited my church, which is one of the fastest growing churches in Kuala Lumpur, from calling our church SIBKL or “Sidang Injil Borneo KL”. In fact, in our church, we often pray for our Prime Minister and the leaders of our nation so that God will bless them and grant them the wisdom to lead our nation.
In summary, the 10-point solution permits the Alkitab, conditionally in Peninsular Malaysia but unconditionally in Sabah and Sarawak. It does not condone the propagation of non-Muslim faiths to Muslims, whether or not they use any of these prohibited words in the act of “propagation”. The Islamic State enactments and the 10-point solution are consistent on the propagation of non-Islamic faiths to Muslims. Hence, I am of the view that the 10-point solution can co-exist with the Islamic State Enactments, although I am aware that there are people who think this co-existence is not perfect.
Why do we place conditions for the Alkitab in Peninsular Malaysia when there are no such conditions in Sabah and Sarawak? Surely, as one country, we should not have this differentiation.
In every country in the world, there are national policies, legislation and standards which are “common” for all states but there are also those which are “differentiated” or customised to take into account specific peculiarities in each country. For example, there are common laws for the United States of America but there are also specific differentiated laws in each state of United States. This is also the case in Malaysia.
The majority of the people living in Sabah and Sarawak have been using the word “Allah” in their own indigenous language even before and after independence. The Alkitab has been widely distributed freely, without restrictions for years. Again, the 10-point solution is in line with the spirit of the 18- and 20-point agreements which explicitly state that while Islam is the religion of the Federation, this is not the case in Sabah and Sarawak. That said, the final Malaysia Agreement did not have such an explicit provision. Sabah and Sarawak do not have similar Islamic State laws as those in Peninsular Malaysia. It is for these reasons that the Federal Government and the State Government in Sabah and Sarawak are unanimous in taking the stand that the Alkitab should not have any conditions as those imposed in Peninsular Malaysia.
In the case of Peninsular Malaysia, the majority of the people are Muslims and there are existing Islamic State laws which control and prohibit the propagation of non-Islamic faiths to Muslims. The sensitivities of the majority Muslim community in Peninsular Malaysia should be taken into account. Furthermore, Christians in Peninsular Malaysia who are Chinese, Indians and others do not normally use “Allah” in English and their own vernacular language. However, recognising the interests of the minority Christian communities and also other communities and religions who also use the word “Allah”, such as the Sikhs, it is reasonable to allow them access to these Alkitab and their own holy books on a conditional basis.
On the one hand, the 10-point solution allows the Alkitab in Peninsular Malaysia to be used by Christians as long as they fulfil the two conditions (that is the cross sign and the words “Christian Publication”). On the other hand, the Home Ministry is not allowing “The Herald” weekly from using the word “Allah”, regardless of whether they put these on the front page of the newsletter, the cross sign and the words “Christian Publication”. Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?
The Herald’s case is based on the use of powers by the minister under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (Act 301) which is to prohibit the use of the word “Allah” in the Bahasa Malaysia version of the publication of The Herald newsletter. In this case, the Home Minister has used his discretionary power in accordance with the law, upon being satisfied that the use of the word “Allah” in The Herald’s publication could cause sensitivities, which in turn threatens public order and security.
The Court of Appeal has ruled that the use of the word “Allah” in the Alkitab is different from its use in The Herald newspaper as seen from the distribution angle of the publications. The Alkitab is allowed on conditional basis to be used in the church and in the Christian community while The Herald is a newsletter that can be accessed by Christians and non-Christian communities. Based on those facts, the usage could result in religious sensitivity and ultimately threatens public order and security. The incidents of the torching of some churches in Peninsular Malaysia have been cited as evidence in the court hearing at the Court of Appeal.
In dismissing the appeal by Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop, Kuala Lumpur (“Titular”), the Court of Appeal reasoned its judgment as follows:
● That the minister had acted in accordance with discretionary power in accordance with the law. The minister was also found not to be acting outside the established principles for his decision to be set aside by the court.
● That the administration (Executive) is the best body to decide on matters of public order and security. In this case, the Court of Appeal found that the High Court had erred when deciding that there is no evidence to show that there has been a threat to public order and security. The Court of Appeal further concluded that the law allows the minister to make decisions without waiting for threats or violence and is sufficient should there potentially be an occurrence of threat to public order and security. The court also took into account the violence that occurred after the High Court decision.
● That the prohibition of the use of the word “Allah “ in the Bahasa Malaysia version of The Herald, which is a translation of the English word – “ God” – in a newspaper, will not prevent the Christian community from practising their religion and therefore does not violate the right to freedom of religion under Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.
In the courts, the arguments on behalf of the minister and the Government of Malaysia in the Court of Appeal are focused on the absolute discretion of the minister to prohibit the use of any words that could threaten public order and security.
In summary, the 10-point solution allows the Alkitab for use by Christians on a conditional basis in Peninsular Malaysia. However, the Home Minister has exercised his discretion by virtue of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (Act 301) to prohibit The Herald from using the word “Allah” on grounds of public order and security. In addition, many people have pointed out that The Herald is a newsletter, and given its potentially wide circulation, it also has a greater propensity to be a tool for propagation.
6) I believe differences or conflicts on religious issues are best dealt with through dialogue and discussions rather than through the courts. However, in The Herald case, the Titular has exercised his legal rights by taking the first step to take the matter to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and now awaiting, the Supreme Court hearing. As this is the highest court in the country, its judgement will be final and definitive.
7) While awaiting the outcome of the Supreme Court hearing, I think it is in the nation’s best interest for all parties to remain calm, avoid taking confrontational actions and refrain from making provocative public statements on the “Allah”/Bible issue. As religious matters are highly sensitive, we must all make sure that the issue is not exploited or escalated to disturb national unity, stability and security. Apart from the court case, we should encourage continuing inter-faith dialogue and discussions in order to find an amicable way forward in handling religious conflicts and concerns.
8) When we came out with the 10-point solution through negotiations and dialogue, the terms of reference was one where we have to make sure the solution firstly, comply with the Federal Constitution on religious freedom but at the same time, comply with the State Islamic enactments. This in itself was very difficult.
Secondly, we had to ensure that there is a win-win solution for the Muslims and the Christians so that no one loses out completely. We had to be sensitive to the Muslims as well as the Christians and non-Muslims.
Thirdly, we need to recognise that many Sabahans and Sarawakians use the word “Allah” in their own indigenous language.
Fourthly, that Sabahans and Sarawakians make about 4 million trips annually to Peninsular Malaysia, hundreds of thousands of them study and work in Peninsular Malaysia. These complex requirements of the terms of reference meant that we had to develop a solution in a very tight spot. There was very little room to manoeuvre. Although I know that there are Christians and Muslims who did not like the 10-point solution because it did not give them exactly what they wanted from their point of view, it was the best and practical compromise that fulfilled all the scope of the terms of reference.
9) Unless someone comes up with a better and more acceptable way forward, I think the 10-point solution remains the most pragmatic and workable compromise (I emphasise “compromise”) to help us manage this highly sensitive issue. I urge all parties to think very carefully about jumping the gun on solutions which lead to a win-lose situation. Think about the dire consequences and people’s reaction; either way, I am convinced any one-sided solution will certainly create a serious fault-line in the Malaysian religious and social fabric. We don’t want to go there.
10) I am convinced that religion and true spirituality plays a vital part in nation building and shaping Malaysian society and the nation. I grew up in Sarawak where people are a lot more tolerant and accommodative of one another, regardless of race and religion. In Peninsular Malaysia, we need to learn a thing or two from the Sabahans and Sarawakians. We must not allow religious conflicts to divide us, or plant the seeds of hatred between communities. Religion is rooted in our Federal Constitution, our State laws and our Rukun Negara as the one of the five main pillars of our society. I pray that this issue does not stain the fabric of our society today. May God guide us and grant us the love and wisdom to help us find a way forward for our nation.
Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of PEMANDU, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit, and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org