A judge in Mayalsia ruled that Christian publications are permitted to use the term "Allah," reversing a previous judgment that Christians are prohibited from using the term. Time reports that Mayalsia's highest court has overturned this ruling based on its restrictions on free exercise of religion. Mayalsia's Christian population stands at about 10% with the majority being Catholic.
The ruling reveals an interesting aspect of Mayalsia's governance where religious expression is actively regulated by the judiciary. Part of the reasoning behind such regulation is that Mayalsian law actually functions under different laws for different groups. In some cases, Muslims are ruled under shari'a law while other groups are sent through the civil court system (see another Time article about a Muslim woman sentenced to caning by shari'a law for drinking a beer). The government explains that such a system is crucial to maintain stability in Mayalsia among different religious groups.
Muslim objectors argue that the court's ruling steps over these judicial boundaries. Furthermore, protestors claim exclusivity to the term "Allah" for Islamic reverence and usage. Most Muslim opposition to the ruling has been peaceful, but a church was firebombed near the capital on Thursday heightening tensions between the two groups.
It is clear that many Muslims in Mayalsia feel that their religion has been violated as a result or the ruling. Reverence for the word Allah and the Qur'an are hallmarks of Islamic devotion and it is understandable that such a ruling would be controversial. Some Muslims suspect that Christians now using the term "Allah" seek to proselytize Mayalsia's Muslim population.
However, from a historical perspective the usage of the term "Allah" is not exclusively unique to Islam. In fact, "Allah" is simply the word for "God" in Arabic and is used by Arabic Christians. One Catholic priest in Maylasia further stated that the Malay-language Bible even refers to God as "Allah."
The issue obviously goes beyond historical uses of "Allah" and its implications for different religious groups. It is evident that Malaysia's religious traditions have a tense and complicated history which plays heavily into consequences of the ruling. In addition, the fact that many Muslims abroad feel culturally and socially under attack from the West creates the perception that the ruling is another case of the West vs. Islam. While not intended, it seems that the court's ruling may have further escalated tensions between Christians and Muslims in Mayalasia.