Jill Ireland back in court as Malaysia considers Christians’ right to call God ‘Allah’

A Bahasa-language Bible, in which the word 'Allah' is used for God (World Watch Monitor)

A Malaysian Christian woman’s campaign for Christians’ right to use the word “Allah” for “God” has resumed in Malaysia’s High Court.

Jill Ireland has been campaigning for Christians’ right to use the word ever since immigration officials at a Kuala Lumpur airport seized eight Christian CDs from her in May 2008 because the CDs used the word “Allah” in a Christian context.

After a seven-year legal battle, Ireland was given back the CDs in 2015, but she maintained that the court had failed to address her constitutional right as a Christian to use the word.

As her court challenge resumed on 19 October, her lawyer, Lim Heng Seng, noted that 60% of Malaysia’s Christians speak the Bahasa Malaysia (‘language of Malaysia‘), which uses “Allah” for “God”. He said Christians were never consulted when in 1986 the country banned Christians from using the word, and that the government’s blanket ban was unconstitutional and discriminatory.

“We say in this case it is neither reasonable nor proportionate,” Lim said. “Here the use of the word for generations is just taken away without giving them the right to be heard.”

“With all respect, nothing in the Federal Constitution says ‘Allah’ is exclusive to Islam; neither is there [anything about this] in the Quran,” he told the High Court, as reported by Malay Mail Online.

“We also have views of experts not only locally in Malaysia, but also international experts that say ‘Allah’ is not exclusive to Islam and that while Christians and Muslims have different understanding of ‘Allah’, there is no claim to exclusivity.”

“There is no copyright to the word ‘Allah’”, he added, so no-one should be able to claim “exclusive rights”, nor should Muslims claim an infringement of their rights if Christians use the word.

The next hearing will take place on 2 November, when the court will hear responses from defence lawyers acting for the Home Minister.

Background

It’s been over two years since the Malaysian government gave back Jill Ireland’s CDs.

Muslim leaders across the world, and UN human rights bodies, decried Malaysia’s decision to ‘copyright’ the word ‘Allah’ for the exclusive use of Malay Muslims.

The Malaysian Catholic Herald newspaper had spearheaded the fight to overthrow the ban, but its final appeal to challenge the decision that it could not use the word in its Malay edition was rejected in January 2015 by the Federal Court, the country’s highest legal authority.

In March 2015, the Islamic Religious Council of the capital applied to have its say in Ireland’s case, but this was dismissed. It argued that it had the right to regulate non-Muslims on how to pray, and the materials they use – including audio and texts.

But Ireland has continued to argue that she has the constitutional right to import and possess material that contains the word ‘Allah’ for God. The word (which predates Islam) has been used by local Christians for hundreds of years, since Europeans first spread the religion, long before Malaysia came into existence.

Ireland is Melanau, a group who mainly live in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, far from Kuala Lumpur, the capital in peninsular Malaysia. Malay is the ‘lingua franca’ of Melanau Christians, so she argued they have a constitutional right to use the Malay term for God.

Ireland’s case was first heard in May 2009 and the High Court granted her leave for a judicial review. In July 2014 the High Court ordered the government to return the spiritual material to her and pay $5,000 ringgit (US$1,335) towards her legal costs. But the government initially refused to return the CDs and appealed against the ruling.

The decision in Ireland’s favour provided a measure of comfort to Malaysian Christians, whose faith and places of worship had suffered a wave of attacks from Islamic extremists. Churches had been firebombed; copies of Malay language Bibles (also named from the Arabic root word for ‘The Book’ – Al-kitab) seized; effigies of the Editor of the Herald, Catholic priest Lawrence Andrew, set ablaze; and threats made to burn Christian Scriptures.