A Malaysian court's ruling that a Catholic newspaper cannot publish the word "Allah" was more about politics than religion, according to several news accounts of the controversial decision.
"Allah" is the Arabic word for God and reportedly has been used for centuries in the Malay language to refer to God. "But the Malaysian government insists that 'Allah' should be exclusively reserved for Muslims because of concerns its use by others would confuse Muslims and could be used to convert them," the Associated Press reported.
The unanimous decision Monday by three Muslim judges in Malaysia's appeals court upheld that ban and overturned a 2009 ruling by a lower court that had allowed the Malay-language version of the newspaper, The Herald, to use the word Allah, according to Reuters.
"The decision was intended to protect Islam, the country’s official religion, from conversions," The New York Times reported.
“It is my judgment that the most possible and probable threat to Islam, in the context of this country, is the propagation of other religions to the followers of Islam,” the chief judge, Mohamed Apandi Ali, said in the decision, according to the news website Malaysiakini, the Times report stated.
But news accounts also noted political tensions between Malaysia's Muslim majority and minority Christian, Hindu and other faiths. AP reported that the lower court decision sparked a string of arson attacks and vandalism at Malaysian churches and other places of worship.
"The decision coincides with heightened ethnic and religious tension in Malaysia after a polarizing May election, in which the long-ruling coalition was deserted by urban voters that included a large section of minority ethnic Chinese," according to Reuters. "In recent months, Prime Minister Najib Razak has sought to consolidate his support among majority ethnic Malays, who are Muslim by law, and secure the backing of traditionalists ahead of a crucial ruling party assembly this month."
And The Guardian's Nasrine Malik wrote that the ruling was meant to put minorities in their place while ironically contradicting an Islamic teaching against people worshipping different Gods. "But perhaps that is the point of what must be a cynical, politically motivated ban," she wrote. "This, and not everyone using the same name for God, is the real 'possible and most probable' threat to Islam."
The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, said they plan to appeal Monday's verdict to Malaysia's Federal Court, the nation's highest.
"We are greatly disappointed and dismayed," he said, according to AP. "This is unrealistic. It is a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities."
Last month, religion writer Jeffrey Weiss penned a guest article on CNN's Belief Blog in the wake of violence in Syria explaining the differences and similarities of the God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
"So do all three faiths actually worship the same deity, whether they call him God or Allah or Adonai?" he asks in conclusion. "God only knows."
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