A Malaysian appeals court on Monday showed once again how a religious based legal system is fundamentally at odds with not just freedom of speech but freedom of religion. The court upheld an abusive government ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah.” Other faiths are now barred from using the term after the court upheld a law previously struck down by a lower court.
The Malay language uses the word “Allah” to refer to God, but the Islamic government wants the word for Muslims alone out of concern that other religions might try to confuse Muslims or encourage them to convert. The insecurity over Muslims leaving the faith is something that we have discussed before in the continued imposition of a death sentence for apostasy.
The government has a wonderfully circular answer to those who say that the law is just another restriction on religion in the name of religion. The government simply says that, since the word belongs to Muslims, it is not a restriction on non-Muslims. However, a Catholic publication wanted to use the term as part of the Malay language.
The decision is also a blow for lawyers in the country who celebrated the decision of a lower court four years ago striking down the law. It was a win for those who want a more secular legal system for the country and reaffirmed that independence of judges. Judge Mohamed Apandi Ali on the Court of Appeals soon put an end to that dream.
Judge Mohamed Apandi Ali simply discarded concerns over free speech or freedom of religion and dismissed any real need to use the word — ignoring that whether someone “needs” to use a word is left to the person to decide in free nations. He declared that “It is our judgment that there is no infringement of any constitutional rights” in the ban. We could find no reason why the (Catholic newspaper) is so adamant to use the word ‘Allah’ in their weekly. Such usage if allowed will inevitably cause confusion within the community.” It is a telling statement. The reason that he apparently sought so hard to find is in the right to use standard words. The court shifted the traditionally analysis from the right to the “need” for a word.
It is a great loss to the integrity and evolution of the Malaysian legal system in overturning the prior decision. The distortive impact of religious orthodoxy on the legal system is felt across the system.