KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s government on Tuesday filed for a stay of execution pending its appeal of a court ruling allowing a Catholic paper to describe the Christian God as “Allah”, amid growing Islamic anger in the country.
Following are some questions and answers on what lies ahead and the political implications of a row threatening to increase religious tensions in the mainly Muslim but multi-racial Southeast Asian country.
The issue stems from a Malaysian Catholic newspaper’s successful legal bid to overturn a government ban against the paper’s use of the word “Allah” to describe the Christian God in its Malay language edition.
It is illegal for non-Muslims to proselytise to Muslims, although freedom of worship for the mainly Buddhist, Christian and Hindu religious minorities who make up 40 percent of the country’s 28 million population is guaranteed under the constitution.
The use of the word “Allah” has been common among non-English speaking Malaysian Christians in the Borneo island states of Sabah and Sarawak for decades and without any incident.
The case is now before the Appeals Court. That court’s verdict can still be challenged at the Federal Court, Malaysia’s top court, whose decision will be final.
The appeals process is often lengthy, taking years. But special public interest cases have been known to be expedited to within several months, which is likely in this instance.
WHAT WILL BE THE POLITICAL FALLOUT FOR THE GOVERNMENT?
An attempt could be made by the National Front government that has ruled Malaysia for 52 years since independence to broker a conditional deal over the use of the word.
The coalition suffered its worst-ever setbacks in national and state elections in 2008 after being abandoned by non-Malays in part due to unease over an increasing Islamisation.
Religious tensions will jeopardise Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ability to win back ethnic Chinese and Indian voters in the next general election, which must be held by 2013.
A failure to regain non-Malay voter support could still allow the ruling coalition to remain in power in the next general election but only just. In such a scenario Najib’s future as premier would be in doubt.
Najib, who took office in April last year, also faces risks in his own political party as senior figures in his United Malays National Organisation, the lynchpin of the coalition, have opposed the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims.
The row also has implications for the three-party People’s Alliance opposition led by former Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim, especially the Islamist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
PAS and its partner, the secular, Chinese-backed Democratic Action Party (DAP) have frequently clashed over issues such as pork, alcohol and PAS insistence on setting up an Islamic state.
PAS has adopted a cautious stand on the Allah issue, reflecting a split within the party leadership, agreeing that Christians have a right to use the word but urging the word not be used in a manner that could jeopardise religious harmony.
Anwar’s ability to manage any row that could emerge between leaders in the opposition will be important.
ARE RELIGIOUS TENSIONS IN MALAYSIA AN INVESTMENT RISK?
Not directly. Religious disputes are a risk mostly in their potential to increase ethnic tensions, with the biggest fear being a repeat of ethnic clashes that took place in 1969.
Some investors are concerned over the increasing Islamisation of Malaysia as a potential market risk.
During a meeting with investors in New York last year Najib, was asked about the government’s stand over the caning sentence meted out to a Muslim woman for drinking beer under rarely-enforced Islamic criminal laws.
An escalation of religious tensions in Malaysia could weaken Najib’s ability to push through economic reforms aimed at boosting foreign investment.
The risk is very small. The bloody 1969 clashes left a deep scar on the national psyche.
Any signs of trouble would see the government use the Internal Security Act that allows detention without trial.
While there are likely to be protests organised by fringe groups, there is no real risk of attacks on churches or other places of worship.
Editing by Alex Richardson