Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia Jan. 2012
Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia Jan. 2012

Photo: Uwe Schwarzbach / Flickr / CC

The Malaysian Court of Appeal has dismissed an application by the Federal Territories Islamic Council to intervene in a Christian’s case over her fundamental right to use the word ‘Allah’.

Jill Ireland, a 33 year old clerk in Sarawak, had eight ‘spiritual’ CDs seized from her at an airport in 2008, as she attempted to bring them into the country from Indonesia. They had the word ‘Allah’ in the titles.

The Herald, a weekly for Malaysian Catholics since 1994, can no longer call God "Allah"
The Herald, a weekly for Malaysian Catholics since 1994, can no longer call God “Allah

Photo: Wikipedia

Her case has been going through the courts at the same time as a much more high-profile case over the right of the ‘Herald’ Catholic weekly paper to use the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God’. However, its Editor, Rev Lawrence Andrew finally lost a seven-year legal battle on Jan. 21, when the Federal Court finally ruled he can no longer call God “Allah” in the publication.

In that ruling, the Federal Court agreed with the government that the use of “Allah” in the Herald would confuse Muslim Malays and therefore adversely promote the Christian faith among them.

However, in Jill Ireland’s case, in July 2014 the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered the Home Affairs Ministry to return the discs to her. But the Court then refused to address her constitutional question on the right to use the word.

Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur is in the Federal Territories (FT); after the July ruling the FT Islamic Council applied to have its say in the case, and it was this application that was dismissed today. One commentator said this was a ‘stunt’, since, he said, the High Court’s ruling had nothing to do with the FT Islamic Council.

The government subsequent to July refused to return the discs, submitting, amongst other points, that the Home Minister had exercised his power under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 to withhold the material if it was likely to be prejudicial to public order.

In a counter-suit, Ireland has also sought a resolution on her constitutional right to use “Allah” because the High Court only ruled on the grounds of the CDs’ return. That appeal has now been fixed for 23rd April.

Today’s Court of Appeal dismissed the application from the Islamic Religious Council of the Federal Territories (MAIWP) to intervene in the case because ‘MAIWP has the right to regulate non-Muslims on how to pray and the materials they use including audio and texts.’

However, the Council has been allowed to hold a watching brief in the cross-appeal by the government and the Home Minister, so the case is not yet completely over.

Parallel verdict on use of ‘Allah’ in Herald was limited, leaving uncertainty

After the ‘Andrew’ verdict, the courts had appeared to decide “Allah” belongs only to Muslims in Malaysia – which has only existed as a country for 58 years. The word (which predates Islam) has been used by Christians there for hundreds of years, since Europeans first spread the religion.

However, even in his defeat, Rev. Lawrence Andrew refused to heed attempts by Islamic religious groups seeking to extend the remit of the ruling against him to cover all aspects of Christian worship in the Malay language.

He told World Watch Monitor he remained hopeful that Malaysia’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom would be upheld in separate court cases: this Ireland verdict appears to be the first step in those.

(In another recent case, for instance, in recent months the Court of Appeal has declared as unconstitutional a ban on cross-dressing by transgendered people. Muslim authorities are appealing).

Background to Jill Ireland’s case

In July 2014, the High Court judge Justice Yusof quashed the Home Minister’s decision to seize the CDs on the grounds that the CDs used prohibited terms, and breached the guidelines of the Malaysia Islamic Development Department (Jakim).

Jill Ireland had on May 4, 2009, obtained leave from the court to challenge the Home Minister’s decision to seize her eight CDs.

Justice Yusof ordered their return to her, and ordered the Home Ministry to pay Ireland some costs.

In her July judgment, the Judge had said it was clear a senior authorised officer could only seize materials pending a decision of the Minister, although there was no provision for the Minister to delegate power to a subordinate.

Ireland’s lawyer Annou Xavier says the constitutional issues raised in her case are the position of Islam as the religion of Malysia, the supremacy of the Constitution, the right to profess and practise one’s religion subject to limitations imposed, and rights to religious education.

Constitutional lawyers say Ireland’s cross-appeal could be used to revisit unresolved issues that could not be argued in the case involving the Herald.

The National Evangelical Christian Federation (NECF) of Malaysia sees the Ireland case as another attempt to undermine the religious freedom of non-Muslims: “This is another serious attempt to strip, restrict, and alter the right to profess and practice one’s religion”. It welcomed today’s decision.