Malaysia is a secular state and non-Muslims in the country are not bound by any edicts issued by state rulers or the National Fatwa Council on issues concerning Islam, said constitutional experts.
The Sultan of Kedah, who is the reigning Yang di-Pertuan Agong, yesterday cited a 1986 ruling by the National Fatwa Council that several words including Allah were exclusive to Muslims, reigniting concerns over non-Muslim religious rights that are guaranteed under the Malaysia Agreement of 1963.
"Edicts and fatwa cannot be applied on non-Muslims as it will violate their legal and religious rights," constitutional lawyer Edmund Bon told The Malaysian Insider, citing a 2009 case.
"Non-Muslims cannot be charged in a syariah court so any decree by the National Fatwa Council does not apply to non-Muslims," he said, pointing out fatwa rulings or edicts were only applicable to Muslims as decided by a three-man Federal Court bench in 2009 in the case of Sulaiman Takrib v Kerajaan Negeri Terengganu; Kerajaan Malaysia (intervener) & Other Cases.
The bench then was constituted of current Chief Judge of Malaya Tan Sri Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin and former Chief Justices Tun Zaki Azmi and Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad, who made his farewell judgment which among other things reiterated that fatwa is for those professing the Islamic faith.
Lawyers for Liberty co-founder Eric Paulsen also said that there was nothing that any of the Islamic religious authorities can do against non-Muslims.
"Whatever edict is issued, be it from the Sultan or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, it is certainly not applicable to non-Muslims and it is non-binding," Paulsen said.
"Even if the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) or the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) issues an edict, it does not affect non-Muslims."
He pointed out that there were numerous case laws which clearly declared that Malaysia was a secular state.
"Islam is not an overriding factor which can deny Malaysians their fundamental rights and liberties which are enshrined in the Federal Constitution," Paulsen said.
"Malaysians are guaranteed the freedom of speech, expression and religion. These are all clearly written in the Federal Constitution."
His comments came after Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah had said yesterday that religious sensitivity must be observed and the status of Islam as the country's official religion must be respected.
"The Agong's statement is merely advisory in nature. However, it is certainly not helpful because what is needed to resolve the 'Allah' issue is genuine consultation between all the stakeholders," Paulsen said.
He also said the Malay rulers, Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Rakyat and Christian leaders needed to sit down and resolve the issue calmly.
Instead of taking a belligerent stance on the issue, all the stakeholders must put aside their prejudice, preconceived notions and distrust to work out a solution, the lawyer added.
Constitutional expert Dr Abdul Aziz Bari also said the National Fatwa Council had no legal standing as issues concerning Islam were a state affair.
"Islam is a matter for the states, and the National Fatwa Council has no constitutional status," he said in a statement.
"This federal-state division of powers which put Islam in the hands of the states is upheld by the Federal Constitution."
Whatever the National Fatwa Council may say about the raid on The Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) by Jais has no effect, whether on Muslims or non-Muslims, Abdul Aziz said.
"Opinions given by state clerics on a personal basis, and not according to the procedure required by law in that particular state, are not binding.
"These remain the personal opinions of the clerics. It differs a lot from the court decisions which form part of Malaysia's laws," Abdul Aziz added.
The Sultan's speech was read out yesterday by the Sultan of Kedah Council of Regency chairman, Tan Sri Tunku Annuar Sultan Badlishah, during an investiture ceremony at Istana Anak Bukit in Alor Star in conjunction with the Sultan's 86th birthday.
It comes against a backdrop of rising tension between Muslim and Christian groups over the use of the word Allah by Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Nancy Shukri had insisted over the weekend that Putrajaya remained committed to a 10-point solution signed with Sabah and Sarawak, allowing Christians to use "Allah" in the Bahasa Malaysia Bible.
The 10-point solution was announced in April 2011 to resolve the issue on the use of the word "Allah" in the Bahasa Malaysia Bible used by majority of Christians in East Malaysia.
Among others, the agreement, drawn up by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Idris Jala, allows the Bible in all languages to be printed locally or imported into the country.
The controversy boiled over again earlier this month when the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) raided BSM, seizing some 300 copies of Malay and Iban-language Bibles and detaining two BSM officials.
This came just months after the October 14 ruling by the Court of Appeal which affirmed the Home Minister had the right to bar the Catholic Church from using the word Allah in its Bahasa Malaysia publications.
The “Allah” row dates back to a 2009 High Court ruling upholding the Catholic Church’s constitutional right to use the word in the Bahasa Malaysia section of its weekly Herald, and has its roots in laws prohibiting non-Muslims from using the Arabic term.
The legal dispute between the government and the Catholic Church is still pending before the Federal Court, which will hear the case on February 24 to decide whether it would hear an appeal by the Catholic Church.
Christians make up about 9% of the Malaysian population, or 2.6 million. Almost two-thirds of them are Bumiputera and are largely based in Sabah and Sarawak, where they routinely use Bahasa Malaysia and indigenous languages in their religious practices, including describing God as "Allah" in their prayers and holy book.
Besides the Bumiputera Christians from East Malaysia, some of whom have moved to the peninsula to live and work, Orang Asli Christians in the peninsula also typically use Bahasa Malaysia in their worship. – January 20, 2014.