Lawyer Lim Heng Seng argued that the Home Ministry’s ban of the word “Allah” in Christian publications through a 1986 circular was unconstitutional and unlawful, asserting that it had breached the Federal Constitution’s guarantee of the rights of religious freedom and non-discrimination to all Malaysians.
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 19 ― Two local Malay-Muslims had separately testified that there was no confusion and no threat to public order arising from the use of the Arabic word “Allah” by the local Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christian community, the court was told today.
Lawyer Lim Heng Seng, the lead counsel for his BM-speaking Sarawakian Bumiputera Christian client Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, referred to lawyer Syahredzan Johan’s 2014 sworn testimony that he had not been confused as a Muslim by the use of “Allah” by the Christian and Sikh communities.
“He says that his Islamic faith has not been threatened, affected or confused or influenced by his Christian and Sikh friends’ practice of their religion notwithstanding their use of the word “Allah” by them,” he told the court today, noting that the government has not denied or furnish evidence to counter the affidavit by Syahredzan that was filed three years ago.
Lim was arguing that the Home Ministry’s ban of the word “Allah” in Christian publications through a 1986 circular was unconstitutional and unlawful, asserting that it had breached the Federal Constitution’s guarantee of the rights of religious freedom and non-discrimination to all Malaysians.
He had earlier highlighted that the Home Ministry’s Publications Control Division’s circular on December 5, 1986 had explained that the ban was to avoid misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians due to their common use of the word “Allah”, as well as to ensure public order.
But Lim said that the government has failed to provide evidence of such confusion or threats to public order caused by the Christians’ use of the word “Allah”.
Lim also cited local academic Azmi Sharom, whose court testimony similarly contradicted the government’s claim.
“He says even if there is such a threat to public order by a fraction of the Muslim community in Malaysia for example, demonstrations or attacking holy places because of the use of the word “Allah” by the Christians in peace and harmony, it is that fraction of Muslims that is causing public order and not that Christian community,” Lim said, citing Azmi’s affidavit.
Lim went on to question who should be considered to be actually causing public disorder, citing a scenario where someone “out of the blue” claims to be offended over non-Muslims’ use of the word “Allah” in comparison to those using it for generations without disrupting public order.
“He makes demonstrations, he demonstrates outside courts, who is the one causing a public order threat? Christians who have been using this word for generations, all these years or the people who come and say ‘you offend me’?” he asked.
Lim also highlighted that there have been cases when lower-ranking government officers which he dubbed “Little Napoleons” had seized non-Muslim publications containing the word “Allah”, only to have such publications released upon appeal to the “upper echelons” in government.
“If there is a public order threat, why are you allowing it to be released? The very fact that after appeal they allow them to be released, means they are considered to be not threats to public order,” he said, arguing that citizens expects the government to always do the right thing instead of upon appeal.
“It makes a thorough mockery of the law, the law becomes only an instrument to protect the weak only when they have access to the highest in government, which is very shocking,” he said.
Lim also said the government cannot cite events that happened decades after its 1986 ban as its reasons, noting that the decision must be made based on evidence available then.
“You don’t come 30 years later (and say), ‘because of Herald case, there was firebombing, therefore the ban is justified,” he said, referring to arson attacks against churches in the past after a court decision in another case over the use of the word “Allah” by the Christian community.
Among other things, Lim cited a High Court judgment in a Sisters in Islam’s case where the Muslim group challenged the government’s ban of a book two years after it was circulated, saying: “Just because there might be some confusion, it is not a sufficient ground for public order.”
“The use of Allah is not two decades, it’s not even two centuries, it’s 400 years, so there’s absence of (threat to) public order in all these 400 years, this is a basis for us to say there is no evidential basis and therefore that ban is unlawful,” he said, having earlier pointed out that there are Malay translations of Christian publications and bibles that date as far back to the 1600s.
Lim said the religious authorities of the various states in Malaysia could instead educate Muslims to avert any concerns of confusion.
“Proper education is the way forward, we are a democratic society and we are not that backward that people would be confused because of one word,” he later concluded.
He also said the Home Ministry’s 1986 circular to impose a blanket ban on the word “Allah” in Christian publications is unlawful, pointing out that the Printing Presses and Publications Act ― which the ban was issued under ― only empowers the banning of publications through government gazettes, and not the banning of words or bans through mere government circulars.
Today is the hearing of Jill Ireland’s bid to have the courts uphold her constitutional rights, following the government’s 2008 seizure of her eight compact discs containing the word “Allah” which were for her personal use and its justification of the seizure using the 1986 ban.
Jill Ireland is seeking two court orders, including a declaration that it is her constitutional right to have access to Christian publications in the exercise of her rights to practise religion and right to education, as provided for by the Federal Constitution’s Article 11 on the freedom of religion.
She is also seeking a court declaration that the Constitution’s Article 8 guarantees her equality before the law and protection from discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of law ― specifically the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Customs Act 1967.
The hearing before High Court judge Datuk Nor Bee Ariffin resumes on November 2, where senior federal counsel Shamsul Bolhassan is expected to present arguments on behalf of the Home Minister and government.