IT’S not hard at all to be disappointed and distressed by the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government over the way the “Allah” issue has developed and been handled. And there is no doubt in my mind that the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) would not have occurred if not for Putrajaya’s pivotal role in banning the word among non-Muslims.
It was the BN federal government that first banned the Al-Kitab, or the Malay-language Bible, nationwide in 1981. And then, in 1986, the BN government banned the use of “Allah” and three other words – “solat”, “Kaabah” and “Baitullah” – by non-Muslims.
Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia have been using “Allah” and Malay translations of the Bible have existed since the 16th century. This neither created “confusion” among Muslims nor posed any “threat” to Islam before the ban in the 1980s.
And while all of that is true, it is equally disappointing and distressing to see how poorly the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)-led Selangor government and the coalition’s leadership are currently responding to the 2 Jan 2014 Jais raid. Even more troubling is the PR leadership’s failure in demonstrating that it will and can uphold the constitutional rights of minority non-Muslims in the state.
Worse than silence
Peace-loving Malaysians are justifiably outraged at Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s silence over the Jais raid. Najib has remained silent and invisible for far too long over numerous instances when bigoted voices have caused unnecessary tensions between Malaysians of different faiths. Is Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim’s response to the Jais raid any less disappointing?
It took Khalid, who is from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), six days to make a statement about the unconstitutional and illegal raid on BSM. This was despite Jais having no jurisdiction over non-Muslims. There was also no evidence that the over 300 Malay and Iban-language Bibles confiscated from a storeroom were being used to proselytise to Muslims, which is a crime according to Malaysian laws.
Shouldn’t Khalid have instantly spoken out against the use of force and aggression by a state apparatus against an entity that had not broken the law and was not threatening the peace? According to BSM president Lee Min Choon, Jais officers acted like “thugs”, repeatedly threatening to break down the door, causing him to fear for his staff’s safety. Lee added that the five Jais officers who were eventually allowed to enter the BSM office started ransacking and throwing around boxes that contained Bibles with no regard for the Christian holy book.
Instead, Khalid’s administration first claimed ignorance of Jais’s actions, saying the religious department had not given the Selangor government prior notice. Then, two days after the raid, the Selangor exco responsible for religious affairs, Sallehen Mukhyi, urged the public to abide by the Selangor sultan’s decree: “The state government takes the same position as the Selangor sultan that all parties must respect Islam as the official religion while non-Muslims may practise their respective beliefs according to the federal constitution.”
Will Selangor uphold rights?
Sallehen, on behalf of the Selangor government, shied away from stating whether non-Muslims could use “Allah” in Selangor. Neither did the Selangor government condemn Jais’s actions. Indeed, Sallehen has since come out to say that Jais’s actions, thuggish as they were, “was correct in terms of SOP (standard operating procedure)”. The only concession is that the state government has asked the religious department to revise its SOP. However, no time frame was given for this to happen. Additionally, the Selangor Islamic Religious Council is now at odds with the state government over the government’s authority to review Jais’s SOP.
This is vexing considering that this is the second time Jais has raided premises belonging to Christians. In 2011, Jais also illegally raided Damansara Utama Methodist Church during a fund-raising dinner.
These statements from the Selangor government demonstrate just how emasculated and unclear the PR seems to be over the issue. The Selangor sultan had decreed that non-Muslims in the state are barred from using “Allah”. As has been pointed out, this decree is not legally binding and is, thereby, unconstitutional. It is also problematic since the state anthem contains the word “Allah”.
And while the ruler may be head of Islam in the state, he is not above the constitution and does not have jurisdiction over non-Islamic matters such as how Malay-speaking Christians choose to worship. And yet, when asked about the Selangor government’s stand on the sultan’s decree, Khalid was reported to have said: “… We continue the Sultan’s decree.”
Additionally, it surely cannot have escaped the Selangor government that BSM had abided by the Cabinet’s 10-point agreement over Malay-language Bibles. Not only that, BSM’s storage and distribution of Malay and Iban-language Bibles for Christian use was neither illegal nor a sign of disrespect to Islam as the official religion.
And yet, Khalid, who is a second-term menteri besar, said the state government would advise non-Muslim religious leaders to abide by a flawed Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988, which Jais used to raid BSM. It is this enactment that bans the use of 35 words by non-Muslims in Selangor including “Allah”.
“… We will advise maybe to not use these Bibles in Selangor, but to be used elsewhere,” Khalid was quoted as saying. This provides yet another dilemma. When it is proven that the confiscated Bibles have abided by the cabinet’s 10-point agreement with Christians, will Khalid still insist that these holy books cannot be used in the state?
How are minority faith groups supposed to “practise their respective beliefs according to the federal constitution” if their very constitutional right to do so is being threatened and forcibly snatched away by a department under the Selangor government? And how can Christians in Selangor trust the PR government when the menteri besar is advising them not to use their Malay-language Bible in the state?
None of these remarks thus far illustrate that that the current Selangor government will have the courage to uphold non-Muslim rights to “practise their respective beliefs”. Instead, the state’s official response has demonstrated a lack of understanding about what that constitutional right means. It has also shown a clear lack of commitment to speaking out against any decree or action that may threaten that constitutional right.
What’s the difference?
The PR keeps promising citizens it’s different from the BN, and that’s why we should vote for them. And yet in this particular instance, is the PR really any different from the BN?
First, the Selangor government has displayed a lacking in both clarity and courage. And then, PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim poured cold water on a proposal by three DAP assemblypersons to amend the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment. The trio suggested a win-win situation – amending the enactment so that it could not be used to restrict anyone from practising their faith while ensuring that Muslims are protected from proselytisation.
Instead of supporting the trio’s initiative and leadership, Anwar was more interested in ticking the trio off. Not only that, he received PAS’s support for doing so. Furthermore, PAS Shah Alam Member of Parliament Khalid Samad told the three assemblypersons not to “interfere in Islamic affairs”.
We already know that the Najib administration will only act in Umno’s narrow ethnocentric interest. And that means continuing to suffer Najib’s silence and inaction when clear leadership is most needed. The recent Jais raid proves that it’s not much different with the PR, especially with PKR and PAS.
These politicians, who want us to vote them into federal government, aren’t ready to be courageous, principled leaders when it is their turn to demonstrate leadership. Apparently, like the BN, we can expect them to act in ways that are politically expedient. How disappointing when what is most needed now is clear, courageous and committed leadership in the public’s interest.