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Government urged not to ban non-Muslims' use of word "Allah"

(CIJ/IFEX) - 16 January 2010 - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) strongly protests the government's ban on the usage of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims in Peninsular Malaysia, as pronounced by Minister in the Prime Minister Department, Nazri Abdul Aziz. By perpetuating the myth that multi-religious usage of the word causes racial and religious discord, the government indirectly encourages a violent reaction against those who challenge the ban.

On 15 January 2010, Nazri Abdul Aziz said in an interview that the usage of "Allah" is allowed for non-Muslims in East Malaysia but forbidden for Christian publications and sermons in the Peninsula.

He told journalists from the KTS media group's dailies "Borneo Post", "Utusan Borneo" and "Oriental Daily" that the ban is to preserve harmony among groups in Peninsular Malaysia. On 5 January, Nazri Abdul Aziz disputed a High Court ruling permitting the word's usage by Catholic weekly "Herald" on the same grounds. Following the ruling, ten churches and a Sikh temple were attacked with petrol bombs and molotov cocktails or otherwise vandalised.

However the violence has clearly been caused by the ban, rather than by the use of the word "Allah". The word is being used in East Malaysia peacefully and has been used by non-Muslim communities in the Peninsula without incident. State censorship and a clampdown on alternative views have deepened the so-called sensitivity and confusion. Research into preventing ethnic conflict has repeatedly shown that a diverse, mature media is one of the key factors in violence prevention.

In this context, CIJ is concerned that the police have discouraged a forum on the issue that was held on 11 January. CIJ is also concerned over reports that the Prime Minister has implicitly instructed editors to censor coverage of the opposition coalition's views on the banning of the word "Allah". What is needed to diffuse tension is encouraging public discussion and debate, with all sides being given time to present their views.

By applying for a stay order against the "Herald", the government is perpetuating the view that the Christian newspaper is to blame for the violence. What is needed is an investigation into the root cause of this controversy, the ban itself, CIJ noted.

The government should stop promoting views which ignore the fact that the word "Allah" predates Islam and the experience where "Allah" has been used by other faiths peacefully. CIJ calls on the government to allow the High Court ruling in favor of multi-religious usage of the word "Allah" to take effect.

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