Prospective U.S. ‘Free Trade’ Partner Prohibits Catholic Paper from Using ‘Allah'

Terence P. Jeffrey | May 26, 2015 | 10:48am EDT
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Protestors outside a Malaysian appeals court in Putrajaya, Malaysia. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

( - In Malaysia, one of 11 nations President Obama is seeking to bring into his “Trans-Pacific Partnership” free-trade zone with the United States, the government has prohibited a Catholic newspaper from using the word “Allah,” says the U.S. State Department.

“Allah,” the Arabic word for God, was adopted by the Malay language.

In Malaysia, as the New York Times explained in an article last November, the government has gone so far as to restrict its use in the Bible.

“According to a series of government orders and rulings by Malaysia’s Islamic councils, the word for God in the Malay language—‘Allah’--is reserved for Muslims,” the Times reported. “Malay-language Bibles are banned everywhere except inside churches. State regulations ban a list of words, including Allah, in any non-Muslim context."

The State Department’s Malaysia 2013 International Religious Freedom Report, published in July 2014, elaborated on Malaysia's treatment of Christians who use the word “Allah.”

“The Publications and Quranic Text Control Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs supervised the publication of religious texts, and restricted the use of the words Allah (God), baitullah (house of God), Kaabah (location toward which Muslims pray) and salat (prayer) to Muslim groups only, asserting that these words were the sole jurisdiction of the Muslim community,” said the State Department’s 2013 report.

“In a long running controversy stemming from the government’s ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims in Malay-language Bibles and other Christian publications, on October 14, the court of appeal overturned a 2009 decision by the High Court of Kuala Lumpur and upheld the government’s decision that the Catholic Herald cannot use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God in its Malay language edition,” said the State Department.

“The court of appeal held that: the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims would create confusion among Muslims; the word ‘Allah’ is not ‘an integral part’ of the Christian faith; and the use of the word ‘Allah’ in the Malay version of the Herald would potentially harm public order and safety,” said the State Department.

“Following the ruling, the attorney general emphasized that the court of appeal’s decision was confined to the publication of the Malay-language text of the Herald,” said the State Department. “Deputy Home Minister Junaidi Jaafar reportedly stated the ruling was meant for the weekly publication of the Herald only and would not affect other Christian publications or the Malay-language version of the Bible, the Al-Kitab, used widely in Sabah and Sarawak. The Catholic Church planned to file an appeal against the verdict in the Federal Court.”

This January, the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest tribunal, rejected the Catholic Church’s appeal and upheld the ban on using “Allah” in the Malay-language Catholic newspaper.

Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the newspaper, was quoted by Agence France Presse as saying he believed this was just the start of what the Malaysian government would do.

"This is only the beginning," said Father Andrew. "I wouldn't be surprised if they come along and say 'don't use it (Allah) in your services.'"

In 2013, according to the State Department report, Malaysian authorities also targeted an Evangelical Christian organization for using the word “Allah” on their Facebook page.

“In May a former Selangor state lawmaker filed a police complaint against the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia (NECF), accusing them of attempting to convert Malays to Christianity through Facebook,” said the State Department. “In response, JAIS [Selangor Islamic Religious Department] began an investigation into NECF’s use of the word ‘Allah’ on their Facebook site.

“In January the Pahang mufti, appointed by the State Islamic Authority, declared that non-Muslims were prohibited from using the word ‘Allah’ and 34 other words associated with Islam,” said the State Department. “He told reporters that non-Muslims were barred from using the words in statements, speeches, publications, or in any broadcast as it could ‘mislead’ and affect the faith of Muslims. He said that doing so would violate the law, which, with a conviction, carries a fine up to RM 5,000 ($1,526) and/or imprisonment up to two years.”

Although the Obama administration has classified the draft text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Congressional Research Service has published a report that indicates its basic purpose is to eliminate tariff and nontariff barriers to trade between its would-be members. In addition to the United States and Malaysia, these include Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Chile, Mexico and Peru.

“With over 20 chapters under negotiation, the TPP partners envision the agreement to be ‘comprehensive and high-standard,’ in that they seek to eliminate tariffs and nontariff barriers to trade in goods, services, and agriculture, and to establish or expand rules on a wide range of issues including intellectual property rights, foreign direct investment, and other trade-related issues,” says the CRS report.

Last week, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill to give the president “trade-promotion authority”—also known as “fast-track” power. This would allow the president to send his 12-nation trade deal to Congress for approval not as a treaty—which would require a two-thirds vote of all senators present—but as unamendable legislation needing a simple majority in both houses.

After the Senate passed the fast-track bill, Speaker John Boehner vowed to try to push it through the Republican-controlled House.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Boehner.

In 2014, according to the Census Bureau, U.S. producers sold $13.1 billion in goods to Malaysia and Malaysian producers sold $30.4 billion in goods to the U.S., resulting in a $17.3 billion U.S. trade deficit with Malaysia.

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