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Tiptoeing around a delicate issue

The Selangor controversy over the kalimah Allah and the Bible seizure is still simmering as politicians from opposite sides of the political divide play the blame game.

IT has been a rather stormy start to the new year in Selangor with lots of rain, flooding and religious issues.

The dust over the Bible raid has yet to settle while the polemic over the kalimah Allah issue is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Officers from the Selangor Religious Islamic Department or Jais had seized several hundred copies of Bibles from the Bible Society of Malaysia, leading to an outcry from the Christians and concerned citizens.

And given how religion and politics are so intertwined in this country, it has resulted in a political war of words over who is to blame and who should be the one to resolve the issue.





Tight corner: Religion and land are state matters which Khalid (second from right) has to grapple with as he walks a fine line between the decree by the Sultan of Selangor (left) and the court case by the Herald.

But the sound and fury over the Bible raid had its roots in a much bigger issue that has been bubbling below the surface since 2009 when the Catholic church won a landmark High Court ruling to refer to God as Allah in its publication, Herald.

Putrajaya appealed against the ruling and, last October, the Appeals Court overturned the High Court decision. The church is appealing against the latest decision.

Two days after Christmas, Father Lawrence Andrew, editor at the Herald and the man who initiated the lawsuit, was reported as saying that the church would continue to use the term at its Sunday mass.

That was when all hell broke loose, so to speak. Muslim groups were already gearing up to protest against the Herald when the Bible raid occurred and everything became even more confusing and emotional than it already was. Dozens of police reports have since been lodged against Father Lawrence and an effigy of him was set on fire. The right-wing Malays have even accused him of treason against the Sultan who had stated that in Selangor, the kalimah Allah is exclusive to Muslims.

Many Christians regard Father Lawrence as a hero, even a martyr, because he is carrying the cross on their behalf. There has been an outpouring of support from church-goers wherever he goes.

On the other hand, many Muslims view him with suspicion because he has provoked and challenged their core beliefs.

“The Muslims are asking why he is doing it. Yes, Sabah and Sarawak are using it but is it necessary to do this here, and why now? Will it change their faith if they don’t use it?” said a Malay editor of a news portal.

There are no correct answers for such questions. There is simply too little middle ground and too much politics mixed in.

The Pakatan Rakyat government in Selangor has faced numerous challenges and issues but none has hit it as hard as the Bible raid and the kalimah Allah issue.

It was a test of coalition politics where the partners in the coalition have divergent goals and contrasting support bases and where what benefits one party works to the detri­ment of the other. There have been emotional voices urging the federal government to find a solution as well as those pressuring the state government to take action.

“Religion is a state matter, 100% under the state. The Mentri Besar knows that, so please do the right thing, sort it out in Selangor. Don’t push religious issues to the federal (government),” said Kapar Umno deputy chief Datuk Saroni Judi.

Saroni, who is a CEO at a tertiary college, was a key figure at last Sunday’s Solidariti Umat Islam protest in Klang.

“The court has made a ruling. Tuanku Selangor has said the term is only for Muslims. We have to defend the position,” he said.

Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim’s problem is multi-fold. The Sultan, as the custodian of Islam in the state, had made it clear that the kalimah Allah is exclusive to the Muslims in Selangor. Khalid is duty-bound to respect the palace decree.

Khalid is a moderate Muslim and was very upset about what had happened. But he could not condemn the Jais action on the Bible Society of Malaysia because the Jais officers had acted according to the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions Enactment 1988.

It did not help his situation when some DAP assemblymen issued a statement seeking support from all Selangor lawmakers for a Bill to amend the religious enactment. The group led by Yeo Bee Yin slammed the Jais raid as “reckless action” and said that DAP will propose the amendment at the next State Assembly sitting.

It is not an empty threat because Pakatan has a two-thirds majority in the state. Yeo’s action probably went down very well with the non-Malays but it pushed Khalid into a corner.

According to constitutional expert Dr Aziz Bari, the DAP lawmakers probably did not realise the possible crisis that could result from their proposal.

“To table an amendment is setting the party against the Palace. Umno and Perkasa will have a field day. They don’t seem to understand the Sultan’s absolute power as head of religion,” said Dr Aziz who is a Universiti Selangor (Unisel) don.

DAP, said Dr Aziz, is already strong having won 38 seats, the minimum each party within Pakatan must deliver in order to capture Putrajaya. PKR only got 30 and PAS 21.

“The suggestion by the three DAP lawmakers may be counter productive. They fell into the Umno trap,” said Dr Aziz.

Even Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who had slammed the Jais action as high-handed, dismissed the DAP proposal as “hasty” and said there was no need to go in that direction.

Khalid kept his head low and emerged a week later to announce that Jais must hold discussions with the state exco and the Selangor Islamic Religious Council before embarking on contentious enforcement actions in future.

“Although they may have the jurisdiction to act, the method of execution must be correct,” he said, carefully choosing his words.

Malay politicians are fearful of a Malay backlash. They are probably aware of the results of a survey by UMcedel (Universiti Malaya Centre of Democracy and Elections) on the kalimah Allah issue.

An overwhelming number of Malays are against non-Muslims using the Allah term. The survey showed that 77% are against it, 11% did not mind while 12% were unsure. As for the Chinese, 21% are not for using the term, another 21% are for it while 58% are unsure.

Perhaps the most interesting indication from the UMcedel survey is how younger voters felt about the issue. A total of 63% of first time voters were against the free usage of kalimah Allah. The objection rate among the young voters was higher than that of older voters which ranged from 56% to 58%.

Contrary to public opinion, the future generation is not becoming more liberal or easy-going about religious issues. This is food for thought for all political parties.

Power, or the dream of power, makes politicians do all sorts of things. The push by Umno to defend the Palace and Islam also has a lot to do with staying in power.

Umno, and Barisan Nasional, were returned to power on the strength of the Malay vote. Hence, it has to go the extra mile on issues close to the Malay heart. Its commitment lies almost solely with the Malays after the rejection by 90% of the Chinese voters.

PAS, on the other hand, is aspiring to power. It needs to ride on the Chinese vote and for that to happen, it needs the support and cooperation of DAP.

The Islamist party is a far cry from its origins. Its critics say it has lost its way. But its non-Muslim supporters like the way it has moved to the centre and that it is no longer harping on the Islamic state.

Its stand on the kalimah Allah issue is less than clear. During the party muktamar in November, one speaker after another insisted that the term must be exclusive to Muslims. But the PAS president is reportedly of the view that the term can be used by non-Muslims as long as they do not misuse it.

Anyone reading the party’s news portal Harakahdaily would think that nothing much is happening in Selangor. News about the Jais raid and Father Lawrence has been more or less blacked out. The less that PAS members know about it, the less worked up they will be.

Even PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang seems to be keeping a wide berth from the matter. His Friday column in Harakahdaily was about why PAS is opposing GST. It looks like Hadi is more savvy a politician than most people think.

Umno, on the other hand, has been going to town on the Selangor controversy. Umno senses an opportunity to fill the lacuna on religion. The Umno website has accused PAS of being neither here nor there on issues undermining the faith.

It denounced the DAP move to amend the Selangor enactment as an attempt to “cuba test market”, that is, to gauge their support among the Malay voters. It also told off DAP’s Lim Kit Siang for trying to push religious issues to the federal government, saying that a veteran like him should know that religion, like land, is a state matter.

The kalimah Allah issue has stirred Christians and Muslims alike. The matter will go before the apex court but it is unlikely that any court decision will bring closure to either side.

In the meantime, political parties from both sides of the divide will continue to make political capital out it.

Joceline Tan can be reached at joceline@thestar.com.my. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. The STAR Online Opinion Columnist 12/01/2014

Tags: kalimah, religion
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