How the government’s controversial ‘Allah’ decision could be a crucial factor in the upcoming elections

A picture shared on Facebook shows young members of the Islamist PAS party parading in military-style attire in Terengganu, Malaysia. Photo by Faizal Rahman
A picture shared on Facebook shows young members of the Islamist PAS party parading in military-style attire in Terengganu, Malaysia. Photo by Faizal Rahman

In a move that has ignited heated debates across Malaysia, the government’s decision to drop their appeal against a court ruling allowing non-Muslims to use the term ‘Allah’ for educational purposes has also sparked concerns over its potential exploitation by conservative opposition parties.

In March 2021, the Kuala Lumpur High Court overturned a decades-old government policy barring non-Muslims from using the word “Allah” to refer to God. That decision was met with great outcry by many conservative Muslim groups who argued that the ruling could create religious strife. On Monday, the Attorney General’s office confirmed that it has dropped its plans to appeal the judgment without giving a specific reason for the decision.

With the country gearing up for the upcoming state elections in the next few months, political analysts warn that the controversial decision to drop the appeal could be used as a potent weapon by the opposition, especially conservative Muslim parties, to attack the ruling government. 

The decision has already drawn accusations that the government is failing to safeguard Islam from the two major components of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition: Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, led by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin, and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the largest single party in Parliament. 

Ashraf Mustaqim Badrul, the youth information chief of Bersatu, questioned whether the government, under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim, was promoting a form of pluralism that posed a threat to the sanctity of Islam.

Afnan Hamimi Taib, the deputy youth chief of PAS, further accused the ruling parties of actively seeking support from non-Muslims in anticipation of the upcoming state polls, while displaying indifference towards the concerns and sensitivities of Muslims. 

Syariah Lawyers Association of Malaysia president Musa Awang also slammed the government’s decision. 

“We are of the view the move… can affect the harmony of the multi-ethnic and religious community in this country,” he said in a statement. 

Musa expressed his profound disappointment and urged the government to provide a comprehensive elucidation, emphasizing that the decision affects the interest of Muslims in Malaysia.

However, on Monday, Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail clarified that the decision to drop the usage of the term ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims stemmed from an outdated administrative order issued by the Home Ministry 37 years ago.

Addressing the issue, Saifuddin, who serves as the chief secretary of Prime Minister Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, stressed that the ruling of the Kuala Lumpur High Court was based on a civil and administrative approach, rather than any theological consideration regarding the use of the word ‘Allah’. 

He informed reporters that the Home Ministry is currently in the process of formulating a comprehensive directive regarding the usage of terms such as ‘Allah’, ‘Baitullah’, ‘Solat’, and ‘Kaabah’. The aim is to align these directives with the interests of Malaysia’s diverse, multicultural, and multi-religious community.

Opposition Exploitation 

Prominent political analyst Professor Tunku Mohar from the International Islamic University of Malaysia suggests that the opposition parties, particularly those aligned with the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, will employ this issue as a campaign issue to portray the ruling government as liberal and dominated by non-Muslims. 

Such a strategic maneuver would capitalize on the conservative sentiments prevalent among certain segments of the population and further solidify the opposition’s position as defenders of Islam. 

“No matter what the government explains—and it is slow in doing so—this will be used as a campaign material to show that the government is weak in defending Islam.”

“MOHA should have explained why it is withdrawing the appeal to at least avoid this confusion that hands the opposition a potent weapon against the government,” he told Coconuts.

By leveraging this contentious decision, Mohar said the opposition will likely seek to exploit the perceived weakness of the government in safeguarding Islam.

Impact on State Elections

James Chin from the University of Tasmania, another esteemed political analyst, highlights the significance of the decision’s timing and its potential impact on the state elections. 

He notes that this issue has emerged at a particularly unfavorable moment for the ruling government since the opposition, particularly the Islamic party PAS, has long claimed that Malays and Islam are being marginalized. 

Chin told Coconuts that the opposition is likely to seize upon this decision to bolster their narrative of the Unity Government’s alleged marginalization of Islam.

He noted that religion, unlike other issues, is deeply rooted in belief and is not necessarily influenced by factual arguments. 

Consequently, the government’s attempts to provide clarifications may not sway those who already believe in the notion of Islam being marginalized. 

“Whatever the government says, those who support the notion that Islam is marginalized, it doesn’t matter what you say, they would not believe it anyway,” he said. 

“The opposition can exploit this sentiment, using the ‘Allah’ issue as a rallying cry to mobilize support, potentially overshadowing other pressing concerns such as the cost of living,” he added.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim affirmed today that his administration will uphold the existing regulations concerning the usage of the term ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims. 

In an official statement, he expressed the cabinet’s profound respect, recognition, and adherence to both state enactments and the decree issued by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on February 7, emphasizing the importance of preserving the current policy.

While there are no official news reports regarding the specific details of the royal decree on February 7, it is widely known that numerous state Islamic laws explicitly prohibit non-Muslims from using the term ‘Allah.’

Anwar further disclosed that the cabinet has obtained the Agong’s consent to present comprehensive proposals on the enforcement of regulations related to the usage of the term ‘Allah’ to the esteemed Conference of Rulers. 

He said this initiative aims not only to uphold the prevailing policy but also to enhance the bonds of unity, peace, and harmony among diverse races and religions in the nation.

The Malaysian government’s decision has far-reaching implications for the country’s political landscape.

The opposition, particularly conservative Muslim parties, is poised to exploit this issue as a potent weapon against the ruling government, capitalizing on conservative sentiments and perpetuating the narrative of Islam’s marginalization. 

As the state elections approach, the impact of this contentious decision remains uncertain. But the ability of the opposition to amplify this issue will no doubt shape the outcome, potentially overshadowing other pressing concerns facing the country such as the rising cost of living.


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