The heart of the ongoing Allah controversy and also the basis for the raid on The Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) by Islamic Department of Selangor (JAIS) is a Selangor state law which seeks to control and restrict the propagation by non-Muslims of their religion to Muslims. In particular, the law makes it an offence for a non-Muslim, in a published writing or broadcasted speech, to use the word Allah (among others) to refer to anything in a non-Muslim religion.
We need to ask the question: Why did these laws even exist in the first place? In order to answer this question, we need to understand the historical context.
In the 19th century, the British colonised the Malay peninsula. Singapore, Malacca and Penang called the Straits Settlements fell under the direct rule of the British. For the rest of the peninsula, the British intended to introduce a system of indirect rule. The Treaty of Pangkor was entered into between the British and the ruler of Perak in 1874. The Perak ruler had to accept a British Resident who would in effect rule the state. By this treaty, the British gained effective and absolute rule and control over Perak. However, the British did not want the local people to think that they had ousted the sultan. So, it was important to give the appearance that the sultan was still in control. Thus, the Treaty of Pangkor stipulated that the sultan had to accept the advice of the British Resident in all matters except matters relating to Malay religion and custom.
From the inception of British colonisation, residual powers like these were given to the sultans as the British took away everything else. The sultans were still the heads of Islam and they retained the power to decide on and administer matters relating to Islam and Malay customs. This model was followed in the rest of the states that the British colonised except that in the Unfederated Malay States the Resident was called Adviser.
For the next 80 years when the British ruled Malaya, they did not allow any Christian missionary work among the Malay peoples. Significant defections of Malays from Islam would reduce the power base of the sultans and this would chip away at whatever little power the sultans were left with. The British were more concerned with the success of their colonial programme and did not want anything, in particular, missionary activity, to upset the Malay sultans and the Malay people (see Michael Northcott, “Two Hundred Years of Anglican Mission” in Hunt, Lee and Roxborough, edd, Christianity in Malaysia, Pelanduk Publications, 1992, pages 35, 36 and 40).
Thus, British policy gave rise to a thinking that, firstly, matters relating to Islam belonged exclusively to the Malay rulers, and, secondly, propagation of other religions to Muslims must be avoided.
On the insistence of Malay nationalists and the Malay rulers, this thinking was reflected in the Malaysian Constitution when the country gained its independence in 1957 (see Joseph Fernando, The Making of the Malayan Constitution, MBRAS, 2002) . The Yang Dipertuan Agung became head of Islam for the Federal Territories and the sultans were the heads of Islam in their respective states. In the division of powers between the Federal and State governments, it was enshrined in the Constitution that the power to legislate on Islam belonged to the States. While a chapter on human rights was introduced, freedom of religion was qualified by Article 11(4) which stated that states may pass laws to control and restrict the propagation of other religions to Muslims.
While this power was given the States, it was never used for more than 20 years. In 1980, the state of Terengganu passed the first of such laws, the Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religions Enactment (No. 1 of 1980) of Terengganu. Other states followed suit. The complete list is as follows: Terengganu: 1980; Kelantan: 1981; Kedah: 1988; Malacca: 1988; Perak: 1988; Selangor: 1988; Pahang: 1989; Negeri Sembilan: 1991; Johor: 1991; Perlis: 2002. Only 4 states do not have such laws: Federal Territory, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak.
Why did Terengganu pass the law in the first place? An examination of the social and political situation in Malaysia in the 1970s does not disclose any friction between the various religious communities. The only inter-religious conflict I could think of was the Kerling Incident in 1977 where a number of Muslim zealots were killed by temple caretakers when they attacked a Hindu temple in Kerling in the middle of the night. This incident had nothing to do with the use of Quranic expressions but arose from the sensitivity of some Muslim extremists towards religious images.
In his article, “Allah judgment: The role of Mahathir, PAS and Anwar,” Rama Ramanathan identified Dr Mahathir’s diabolical diagnosis of genetic and mental weakness of Malays as the root cause of the present “Allah” dilemma. He said:
“Mahathir became Deputy Prime Minister in 1976 and became Prime Minister in 1981 when his predecessor Hussein Onn resigned “due to health reasons.” At that time, Mahathir was considered unlikely to succeed. There were serious doubts over whether he could lead Umno to victory. He was vilified by PAS. Mahathir soon proved his critics wrong. He patiently and vigorously sculpted strategies to ensure his survival for long enough to achieve his vision for Malaysia. Mahathir devised a powerful strategy to rob PAS of the claim that Umno is not ‘Islamic’. He would ‘show the people’ Umno was Islamic, and would make Malays rich. Mahathir used Islam as a tool to sculpt the new image of Umno. Barry Wain has put it so well, I can do no better than to quote him again: “Recast overnight by his critics as an “anti-Muslim villain” and contemptuously labelled Mahazalim, Mahakejam and Mahafiraun – the Great Oppressor, the Cruel One and the Great Pharoah: in summary, the cruellest of them all – Dr Mahathir chose not to address the many sources of discontent. Instead, he tried to recover Malay affection by further out-bidding PAS on religion, offering some of the items on the fundamentalist agenda he had always opposed. Encouraged and emboldened, religious bureaucrats flexed their muscles and tried to impose a grim form of Islamic orthodoxy (Barry Wain, Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, Palgrave: 2009 p. 218). Mahathir co-opted Anwar Ibrahim, then leader of ABIM. At the time Anwar joined Umno in 1982, only Terengganu and Kelantan had passed the restrictive enactments. How did Umno get its Islamic credentials? (1) The co-option of Anwar, a politician with stellar Islamic credentials; (2) Mahathir’s strategy of doing “Islamic things” like passing legislation to ‘show’ Umno is Islamic – and thereby silence PAS; (3) courting the international media and showcasing Malaysia as an Islamic nation.”
(Tomorrow: The next step in the grand plan)