Understanding the AG’s Decision

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Was the Attorney-General’s decision not to charge the Bible Society of Malaysia for using the  word “Allah” in the Malay Bible founded on law and a proper interpretation of the law?

The AG concluded that the Malay Bible does not fall under Section 9(1) of the Non-Muslim Religions (Control of Propagation Amongst Muslims) Enactment 1988 of Selangor.

The key to understanding how the AG came to this conclusion lies in his use of certain terminology. His statement originally made in Bahasa Malaysia states as follows:

 “Keterangan menunjukkan buku-buku yang dirampas adalah Bible dalam versi Bahasa Malaysia dan Alkitab Berita Baik adalah himpunan buku Taurat, Zabur dan Injil yang merupakan buku asas penganut agama Kristian.”

Roughly translated into English:

 “The statements [recorded from witnesses] show that the confiscated books are the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia and the Alkitab Berita Baik is a compilation of the Torah, Psalms and Gospels which are the basic books of the Christian religion.”

The AG used the expression “buku asas … agama” (English: “basic religious book”). He could have used a variety of expressions to describe the Malay Bible, for example, buku suci (“holy book”). However, the term “buku asas agama” used by the AG was taken from the terminology found inside the 1988 Selangor Enactment itself. Let me explain.

Section 9(1) of Selangor Enactment No. 1 of 1988 states that “a person commits an offence if he in any published writing uses certain Quranic words (eg. “Allah”) to express or describe anything pertaining to a non-Islamic religion.

It should be noted that Section 9 prohibits a non-Muslim in a published writing or in a public speech from using the word Allah in a non-Islamic context. In the heat of the recent debate, it was commonly assumed that the use of the word Allah in the Al-Kitab is a contravention of Section 9. However, what has been overlooked is the intention of Selangor Enactment No. 1 of 1988 to recognise and give due respect to the holy books of non-Islamic faiths.

Section 2 of Selangor Enactment No. 1 of 1988 defines the word “publication” as follows:

“publication” includes any book, magazine, pamphlet, leaflet, sound-recording material, cinematograph films and any other material for reading, viewing or hearing howsoever produced

However, Section 2(2) and (3) further clarifies:

(2)       For the purpose of this Enactment, a publication shall be held to be one concerning a non-Islamic religion if it is considered by the followers or members of that religion to be a holy or fundamental book or one of the essential texts of that religion (hereinafter referred to as “basic religious book”) …

 (3)       Notwithstanding that a publication is a publication concerning a non-Islamic religion by reason that it falls under subsection (2), it shall not form the subject of an offence under this Enactment if the publication as a whole is in the interest of Muslim or the religion of Islam.

Thus, the Enactment in Section 2 recognised the existence of holy or fundamental books or essential texts of non-Islamic religions and classified them under the expression “basic religious book.”

The word “publication” as appears in the Enactment includes “basic religious books” and secondary religious writings of a non-Islamic nature. Thus, it is an offence under Section 7 to send any non-Islamic holy books to a Muslim. Similarly, it is an offence under Section 8 to distribute non-Islamic holy books in a public place to a Muslim.

When Section 9 created the offence of using banned words, it used the expression “published writing” like an article, a book or an internet blog. In other words, an individual (note: the words “a person”) cannot in contemporaneous writings like articles published in books, newspapers, magazines, internet, etc, use the word Allah with a non-Islamic reference.

However, Section 9 has no application to pre-existing non-Islamic holy books. If Section 9 intended to refer to holy books of non-Islamic religions, it would not have used the words “published writing” only but instead would have used or included the expressions created in Section 2, namely, “basic religious books.”

In creating the expression “basic religious books” in Section 2, the Enactment was recognising the existence of non-Islamic holy books like the Al-Kitab which predated the Enactment and indeed the foundation of Malaysia as a modern independent nation. Nothing in the Enactment seeks to prohibit non-Islamic holy books even if they contained the banned words. It only prohibited the sending or distributing of non-Islamic holy books to Muslims.

In fact, Section 2(3) even recognised the possibility of certain non-Islamic holy books as being “friendly” to Islam and provided a blanket exemption, namely, that “it shall not form the subject of an offence under this Enactment if the publication as a whole is in the interest of Muslim or the religion of Islam.” It is my understanding that Islam has traditionally recognised the holy books of the Christians, in particular, that there is a continuity in revelation from the Christian religion to the Islamic religion. However, this is an area for the experts to comment on.

Clearly, the Enactment does not intend to make holy books of non-Islamic religions as contraband articles. It does not prohibit the use of words like Allah in the holy books of non-Islamic religions like the Christian Al-Kitab or the Sikh Granth Sahib.

This view finds support from the recent Court of Appeal decision in Menteri Dalam Negeri & 8 lain lawan Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur [2013] 6 MLJ 468 commonly known as the Allah case. YA Dato’ Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahim JCA said at page 505:

“Nevertheless, I think neither the historical evidence nor the fact that the word ‘Allah’ appears in Al-Kitab (which is the Malay version of the Bible) is a sufficient justification for the [Home Minister] not to consider imposing the prohibitive condition of the usage of the word ‘Allah’ in the Herald. The Al-Kitab and the Herald are two publications of entirely different character. The Al-Kitab is the Malay version of the Bible — so, it is obvious that it meant only for Christians. Moreover the Ministry of Home Affairs had already specified the condition that the Al-Kitab is to be used in churches and among Christians only; and that the words ‘BUKAN UNTUK ORANG ISLAM’ are to be printed clearly and conspicuously on the front page of the Al-Kitab. This condition is obvious from the Ministry’s letter dated 24 April 2007 to the respondent — in paras 10–12. Whereas the Herald is a newsletter or in the same category as a newspaper (albeit with restricted circulation) which is used or likely to be used as the mouthpiece for the Catholic church to disseminate informations on the activities of the Catholic church or Catholic congregations. It is acknowledged by learned counsel for the respondent that as of today the Herald is accessible online. This online accessibility means that the Herald can be read by anybody — be it Muslim or non-Muslim. For this reason, I am of the view that the permission given by the Ministry for the printing and publication of Al-Kitab in which the word ‘Allah’ appears cannot be treated in the same manner as the printing and publication of the Herald with the usage of the word ‘Allah’.”

The other two judges say nothing about the Al-Kitab but both say they agree in toto with Justice Abdul Aziz.

In conclusion, a careful reading of Selangor Enactment No. 1 of 1988 shows that neither the use of the word Allah in the Al-Kitab nor the use or possession of the Al-Kitab by Christians constitute offences under Selangor Enactment No. 1 of 1988.

This, I suggest, was the AG’s understanding and interpretation. That was why he used the expression “buku asas agama” which was the rough variation of the 1988 Enactment’s expression “basic religious book.” Recognising that the Al-Kitab is a basic religious book of the Christians, it was therefore logical for him to conclude that the Al-Kitab does not fall under Section 9 of the 1988 Enactment and that the use of the word Allah in the Al-Kitab does not constitute an offence at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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