High Court rules govt’s “Allah” ban for non-Muslims invalid

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Directive to prevent non-Muslims from using the words “Allah”, “Baituallah”, “Solat” and “Kaabah” set aside.

After 13 years and 12 adjournments, the High Court, in a landmark ruling, has allowed a judicial review application by Sarawakian Christian Jill Ireland that she can use the word “Allah” in her religious education.

Judge Noor Bee Ariffin said a Dec 5, 1986, home ministry directive to prohibit the use of the words “Allah”, “Baituallah”, “Solat” and “Kaabah” by non-Muslims was illegal and unconstitutional.

The judge said the directive was wrongly issued as it went beyond the aim of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

“The law is only to check on undesirable publications. It is not a general law to check on public order, public health and morality,” she said.

Noor Bee, who took 90 minutes to read her grounds of judgment, said that as such, the directive to prevent non-Muslims from using the four words was set aside.

She said Ireland had the constitutional right to use and import any publications for her religious education.

In a suit filed in 2008, Jill sought official recognition of her constitutional rights to practise her religion and non-discrimination under Article 11 and 8 of the constitution.

She filed her suit after eight CDs of educational Christian material containing the word “Allah” were seized from her at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on her return from Indonesia.

Nor Bee today said the Home Ministry had “exceeded its power” with its 1986 order banning the word “Allah” on the basis that it was a threat to public order.

“There is no such power to restrict religious freedom under Article 11. Religious freedom is absolutely protected, even in times of threat to public order.

“No power can deprive a person of the ability to practise his or her religion. The prohibition is inconsistent with Article 11,” she said.

This judgment has been adjourned 12 times for parties to seek an out-of-court solution to the use of the term Allah for East Malaysians and in publication materials.

In 2008, Customs’ officers at KLIA seized from Ireland eight CDs entitled “Cara Hidup Dalam Kerajaan Allah”, “Hidup Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah” and “Ibadah Yang Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah”.

Initially, she filed the action to reclaim the CDs, seeking several declaratory reliefs as well.

In 2014, the High Court ordered the home ministry to return the CDs to her but did not address the constitutional points as it was bound by a Federal Court ruling.

The following year, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court ruling but ordered it to hear Ireland’s application for a declaration that her constitutional right to practise her religion was violated by the restriction or ban of the import of educational material.

The judge also acknowledged the fact that Christian communities in Sabah and Sarawak have been using “Allah” for generations in the practice of their faith.

“The fact that they have been using it for 400 years cannot be ignored,” she said.

Addressing the issue that granting non-Muslims the right to use the word “Allah” would confuse Muslims, the judge said that the Home Ministry should instead produce Muslims to come forward to say that they were confused.

Noor Bee said Ireland had also presented affidavits from three Muslims that they were not confused by Christians using the word Allah in their churches and religious education.

The judge said a 10-point solution which came into being in 2011 also demonstrated the government’s commitment to religious tolerance and to neutralise the 1986 impugned directive.

“When the 10-point solution was around, the government could have withdrawn the directive and the present problem would not have been an issue,” she said.

The 10-point solution was a Cabinet policy decision to resolve issues pertaining to the importation, printing, distribution and usage of the Bible in Sabah, Sarawak and the peninsula.

That decision, among others, imposed no restriction on Christians from Sabah and Sarawak to carry with them Bibles that contained the word Allah, provided the holy scriptures include the words “Christian Publication”.

Noor Bee, who is now a Court of Appeal judge, said the Cabinet under then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad did not impose a total ban on the four words but the home ministry exceeded its authority.

“It is the ministry that has acted unreasonably, illegally and irrationally,” she said.

Lawyer Lim Heng Seng later told reporters that today’s ruling demonstrated the court was prepared to uphold the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.

Counsel Annou Xavier who represented Ireland, when met after the proceedings said the government directive dated Dec 5, 1996, which prevented non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ is now unlawful and unconstitutional.

Hari Anggara

Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill’s lawyers Lim Heng Seng (left) and Annou Xavier (right).

“From the interpretation of today’s judgement, I am saying that non-Muslims can use the words – ‘Allah’, ‘Kaabah’, ‘solat’, and ‘Baitullah’ in all of its publication,” he said.

Besides Ireland’s case, the Catholic Church also went to court over the word, which is used in its weekly publication, Herald.

In 2015, the Federal Court dismissed the Church’s application to review an earlier decision of the Apex court not to grant leave to appeal the ban on the word.

Meanwhile, Christian group Sidang Injil Borneo is also challenging the Home Ministry over seizures of religious books brought in from Indonesia in 2007.