Selangor’s religious authorities may continue the controversial “witch hunt” for bibles containing the word “Allah” in their desire to cement the state enactment that empowers them to do so, said one legal expert.
Civil rights lawyer Andrew Khoo expressed concern that the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988 may continue to be “abused and misused” until its constitutionality can be tested in a court of law.
“I don’t think they will stop until they get a conviction under the enactment. Because you can see they are being frustrated by AG’s refusal to press charges and they are going to find some other individual to arrest and charge,” Khoo told The Malay Mail Online when contacted.
Khoo was referring to the Attorney-General’s (AG) decision last week not to prosecute the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) over the possession of bibles containing the word “Allah”.
He believes the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) and its enforcement arm, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) are now intent on getting their day in court by going after other individuals.
Mais may be trying to provoke a situation with circumstances that differ from BSM’s case and one where the “AG may agree there ought to be a prosecution”, he asserted.
On Wednesday, news portal The Malaysian Insider reported Mais chairman Datuk Mohamad Adzib Mohd Isa as saying that the state religious bodies will continue seizing bibles containing the word “Allah” and arrest those who distribute them.
Khoo described the statement by Mais as an “aggressive and provocative” act.
“This is basically a threatening of the religious freedom of BM speaking Christians because you are basically telling them that the use of BM bibles is going to get them into trouble”.
He suggested that the AG had foreseen Mais’s intent when he said that Section 9 of the 1988 enactment ― which prohibits a person from using a list of 35 Arabic words and phrases including “Allah” for non-Muslim religions ― did not cover the religious text of Christians.
Lawyers have argued that Section 9 was in breach of the Federal Constitution’s Article 11 (4) as the clause in the 1988 enactment is worded too broadly and does not limit the ban to propagation to Muslims.
Although Article 11 guarantees the religious freedom including the right to regulate one’s faith, it is subject to Article 11(4) that allows states to make laws to control the propagation of other faiths to Muslims.
Despite the controversy that such enforcement attracts, two other lawyers said the Selangor religious bodies can continue seizing bibles containing the word “Allah” in the state despite the AG’s decision in the BSM case.
They will remain empowered to do so until someone successfully challenges the validity of the 1988 state law that Jais says empowers them to confiscate publications with the Arabic word for God.
Despite concerns, civil rights lawyer Nizam Bashir viewed Mais’s statement as mere “posturing” and a “warning” following the Christian community’s insistence that it will continue to use the word “Allah” in their worship.
“The thing is the relevant enactment still stands till today. So the relevant authorities can act on it until a court holds that enactment as unconstitutional. Until then, each seizure has to be decided on its own merits,” he told The Malay Mail Online when contacted.
In some countries like the US, a statement by the AG can be seen as a “policy” on prosecution for similar cases in the future instead of being applicable to a specific case, but this would also have to be argued in courts, Nizam said.
But although Nizam said the enactment allowed the seizure of bibles, he questioned if Jais officers were the proper authority to enforce the law.
He argued that for non-Muslim entities including BSM, the seizure of publications that are allegedly in breach of the state law should be done by police officers instead of Jais.
A third civil liberties lawyer, Syahredzan Johan, also said the AG’s decision in the BSM case would not affect future bible seizures by Jais as it was specific and “cannot be precedent” for other future instances.
On the face of the 1988 law, Jais officers would still have the power to seize bibles containing the word “Allah”, he said.
“If there’s no propagation, they can still investigate and when necessary arrest if they have reasonable belief that there’s propagation,” he said, adding that whether such acts are “reasonable” would be a separate issue.
Syahredzan noted that although the 1988 enactment does not expressly name Jais as having the authority to enforce the state law, but said they would be exercising their powers as “certified officers” under that law.
Syahredzan said that if the Selangor government was reluctant to amend the 1988 law, they could still replace Jais’ role in enforcing this law with a secular state agency that would be directly “accountable” to the state government.
Saying that this approach would be “less confrontational” instead of having a religious body from one religion carry out investigations and seizures, he also clarified that this should not affect the actual functions of Jais and Mais on Islam.
Jais seized 321 bibles Malay and Iban language bibles that contained the word “Allah” during raid on BSM’s office in Petaling Jaya on January 2.