This is the most difficult piece I have had to write for this blog. I have split it into two halves. In today’s post, I write about the experience of growing up in an Islamic country. Tomorrow, I will write about growing up as a Christian amongst Muslims. I hope to distinguish between Islam as a system on one hand, and Muslims as individuals on the other. While the relationship between the two is complex, it is my belief that we too easily conflate the two. If there are things in one of these posts that conflict with your views, I ask for your patience, and suggest that you read the other half.
There are things about the Malaysian Islamic authorities and government that I have purposefully left out, because even expressing the views I have may put my family and friends back in Malaysia under scrutiny and at risk. You may notice, in addition, that we have removed my last name from the blog to protect my family’s identity. My wife invites you to share a drink with me if you want to hear more.
I’m woken up at 5:39 a.m. by the local mosque’s muezzin (the person appointed to read public prayers) reciting the Adhan. Every neighborhood in Malaysia has several mosques, and each broadcasts its prayers via loudspeakers. Allāhu akbar (God is great), they begin each morning, heard by all. The nation’s Muslims (who are mostly ethnic-Malay and make up over 60% of the population) are called to begin their day in prayer. The non-Muslims (consisting mostly of ethnic Indian and Chinese Malaysians) are woken up with them, even if they are not called to the same prayers. Life in Malaysia is punctuated and driven by the rhythms of Islam. It has been this way for generations.
Malaysia is a former British colony. When (then) British-Malaya gained independence in 1957, the nascent constitution left the country with a mixed religious identity. Freedom of religion is a right, but only for non-Muslims, as proselytizing Muslims is against the law. In addition, Muslims cannot renounce their faith without incurring consequences from the state. Due to the large number of Muslims and Islam’s historical roots in the region, Islam has always had a strong influence on public life.
Growing up, I took Islam’s influence as a fact of life. Some of it was positive; we got many more days off school due to various Islamic holidays. Some of it was common sense; during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day, non-Muslims were told to eat discreetly. To me, this was simply being a good neighbor. Some of it seemed necessary due to the population’s composition; various jobs and positions in society, particularly within the government, were out of reach for non-Muslims (e.g. in 9 of Malaysia’s 13 states, the state government’s head must be a Muslim, by law).
For the most part, I grew up loving my country’s social fabric. Muslims were just another community of faith worshipping alongside Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. It wasn’t merely coexistence; the diversity enriched our culture. I grew up joining neighbors and friends celebrating their religious holidays. Celebrating Eid al-Fitr (the festival marking the end of Ramadan) at my friends’ homes – and having them over to celebrate Christmas at mine – remains a precious memory. Malaysia has long boasted of its cultural diversity and harmony.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a gradual shift in how Islam’s influence in Malaysian public life was expressed. The public sphere in Malaysia is increasingly controlled by Islamists: Muslims who believe that Islamic principles should dictate legal, public, and political activity within a state.* While “revolutionary” Islamists may use violence to achieve this, those in Malaysia consist mainly of “reformist” Islamists who seek to Islamize the nation using democratically gained political power.
The historical reasons for the creeping Islamization are complex.** In its simplest form, it has been driven by Islamist groups and individuals courting a Muslim-majority electorate by promising to secure Islam’s position of power within the country. This has taken on multiple forms. For non-Muslims, there has been increased scrutiny and (dare I say it) persecution. Here are some examples:
- Islamists in Malaysia benefit from a political climate where Muslims are told their way of life is under attack by the non-Muslim minority. Suspicion towards minorities tends to lead to increased support for those in power claiming to be protectors. In 2008, a non-Muslim politician was accused of pressuring a local mosque to decrease the volume of the morning prayer; she was arrested. The accusation was a lie by another politician, but the slander was easily believed because the lie involved attacking Muslim practices. This trend has conditioned Malaysian non-Muslims to be extremely cautious when speaking publicly about Islam – and is also why we have removed identifying information about me from this blog.
- Since 2007, the Malaysian courts have denied Christians the right to use the word Allah, claiming it is exclusive to the Islamic faith. However, it is the name used for God in Malay-language bibles, which allows the government to seize these bibles.*** The government claimed this was to ensure Muslims would not be influenced by Christian teachings, but it also denied access to bibles for thousands of Malay-speaking Christians. It grieves me that my Malay-speaking brothers and sisters are hindered from worship. In the English-speaking churches of Malaysia, we have had to be watchful of other actions that might further erode our freedom to worship.
- Earlier this year, a pastor was abducted and has not been found. Activists suspect the pastor was a target for the various mercy-ministries he did amongst the economically disadvantaged, because this may have included some Muslims.
- The law does not permit Christians to share their faith with Muslims. In 2014, a politician wrote an autobiography about her personal and political journey, and how it was shaped by her Christian faith. This year, a Muslim academic made a police report accusing her of trying to convert Muslims to her faith. There is an increasingly real cost to being identified as a Christian in public in Malaysia.
The Islamists involved in some of the examples above may be individual Muslims, but I am concerned mainly with their use of Islam as a system to wield power over non-Muslims in the public sphere. However, the same system and power can be used on Muslims. It is vital to recognize that Muslims are a diverse group, many of whom do not seek to wield power in the service of Islam as a system (as Islamists do). As challenging as things have become for non-Muslims, I believe the creeping Islamization in Malaysia has oppressed my Muslim neighbors most of all. Some examples:
- As Islamists seize control of the public sphere, a conservative brand of Islam becomes the norm, and more moderate or progressive Muslims are judged as “deviating” from the community’s beliefs. This is accompanied by increased censorship of religious speech and expression by those Muslims (e.g. the government bans books about Islam it deems harmful to religious order). In the eyes of conservative Islamic authorities, such Muslims can be considered apostates, and they face even worse fates than non-Muslims.
- Malaysia has a mixed legal system: alongside the civil courts, there are Islamic courts that have jurisdiction over Muslims for a narrow range of (mostly morality-related) laws. The Islamic authorities typically police Muslim morality independently of civil laws. For example, they commonly perform raids on hotel rooms if they suspect the guests are unmarried Muslims (without the need for warrants).
- While the jurisdiction of the Islamic courts remains quite limited at present, Islamists have been pushing for the expansion of the Islamic penal code, which would allow for penalties such as stoning and the amputation of limbs. Some Islamists view the enactment of Islamic law as their primary political goal.
Understanding and engaging with Islam is extremely complex. My experience and history in Malaysia enables me to make the distinction between Islam as a system and Muslims as individuals. This allows me to see that it is not a matter of Us vs. Them, because Christians are not the only ones who face difficulties within a Muslim-dominated society; Muslims are often severely oppressed, and stopped from hearing the Gospel. How can we serve these people in need if we do not see them as individuals?
At the same time, I do not believe we will be equipped to engage with and serve them if we do not recognize that Muslims in Muslim-dominated societies are often embedded within a system of Islam influences the way they think about and practice their faith. Here in the US, many barriers have been removed (e.g. there is no law prohibiting sharing our faith with Muslims), and Islam as a system does not have the same power in the public sphere.
Engaging with Muslims demands wisdom to discern how each individual Muslim relates to Islam as a system. But more than anything else, it requires us to see Muslims as neighbors we are called to love.
Here in the US, I am not woken up by the Adhan. Some mornings, I wake up half-expecting to hear it. I sometimes miss it, along with the Muslim friends I have left behind in Malaysia.
* I make no claims about whether it is due to a particular (correct or incorrect) interpretation of Islam’s teachings (as Matt Koerber said, only Muslims are in a position to judge what constitutes “true Islam”). I am simply describing what is observable: that these groups and individuals have sought political power with the stated goal of securing Islam’s influence over society (and by extension, securing the security of Muslims).
** See Islamization in Malaysia: processes and dynamics by Abbott and Gregorios-Pippas (2010) for a comprehensive analysis of the historical factors that led to this.
*** Allah is simply the generic Arabic word for God, which has been used by followers of all the Abrahamic faiths for centuries.