This is the most difficult piece I have had to write for this blog. I have split it into two halves. In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the experience of growing up in an Islamic country. Today, 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.
My views of Islam as a system (discussed in my last post) have evolved since I was a child, for two reasons. First, my perspective is informed by having inhabited multiple cultures, something I gained from having lived in the West in more recent years. Second, I believe the increasing Islamization of Malaysia has sped up – it is a much bigger factor now than it was when I was growing up.
But deeper than those views, and more impervious to time, has been the deep affection for individual Muslims borne out of first-hand experiences I have shared with them while growing up. My deepest affinities for Muslims got rooted deep within me before the present wave of Islamization hit Malaysia.
It takes a village
I grew up in a racially (and consequently, a religiously) diverse neighborhood. The Muslim Mak Ciks (literally, Sister-Mothers; the Malay equivalent for Aunty. In Malaysia, every adult acquaintance is an Uncle or Aunty) helped raise me. My parents tell me that when I was a baby, our Muslim next-door neighbor would rub my belly with an herbal ointment if I was crying to help me sleep. A different Mak Cik would walk me home from school when my parents needed someone to get me. The Mak Cik across the street was my third grade math teacher. When any of my family were sick (especially my dad, who had long bouts with cancer), they would be ready to drive us to the hospital or provide meals if we needed. Last summer, many of them came to my wedding reception in Malaysia and shared in our joy, generously giving us traditional Malay gifts of glassware and linens.
Every Eid al-Fitr (the festival marking the end of Ramadan), there were at least 4 or 5 Muslim neighbors I would be expected to visit and share a meal with. Sometimes, there would be so many invitations my family would have to strategically send me to some on my own. I would be welcomed like a nephew. These families would show up at my family’s home at Christmas. When I moved to the US, I found the relatively insular family celebrations of holidays an oddity.
The Muslims I grew up amongst embodied what it meant to be a good neighbor. They loved me, a Christian, as themselves. This did not change even as the public sphere in Malaysia faced the pressures of Islamization. While Islamist leaders and politicians in Malaysia have warned Muslims against sharing in the religious celebrations of non-Muslims (for fear of tarnishing their faith), our neighbors seem to view sharing life with us as central to their faith, even if (maybe especially because) we are not Muslim ourselves.
When I visit home, I meet these Muslim Uncles and Aunties. We reminisce and catch up, and they are proud of me and how my life has gone, as Uncles and Aunts are with their own nephews and nieces. On our last trip, several of them had the chance to meet Evelyn. They welcomed her into the neighborhood, unconcerned with her otherness. One Mak Cik handmade and delivered her special chicken pot pie for us to eat on Christmas Day, even though she was weak from her own cancer battle.
I attended a public school in Malaysia, with a racially and religiously diverse student body. I am ethnically Chinese, while almost all Muslims are ethnically Malay. Friendships across religious and ethnic lines were common as I grew up, but are becoming less common with Malaysia’s creeping Islamization polarizing people and sowing seeds of suspicion and fear. I weep for future generations of Malaysians who may never know the deep friendships I have shared with my Muslim friends.
These are people I have played countless hours of soccer with, shared meals with, and even talked about my faith with. In a country where sharing one’s faith with Muslims is illegal, the likeliest way they will encounter the Gospel is through friendships with Christians. In turn, I have learned much about Islam through my friendships with them. Friendship made us willing to listen to each other.
I don’t know if any of my Muslim friends will ever come to believe in the God revealed in Jesus the way I do. I don’t know how any of our conversations will have affected their beliefs. But I think these friendships still matter because they are not merely means to an end of conversion.
There have been periods of racial violence in Malaysia’s past, primarily between the Malay Muslims and the ethnic Chinese. I have no doubt that many of my Muslim friends would have given their lives to protect me, a non-Muslim, if violence of that sort were to return to Malaysia. Would I, a Christian, lay my life down for them? It’s a question I have asked myself this past week.
Love thy neighbor
Why have I told you about these friendships? I view these friendships as forms of resistance against the fear and resentment that can fester between different communities (particularly between non-Muslims and Muslims). I view them as the means by which Christians love their neighbors as themselves.
In my last years in Malaysia before moving to the US, this became more difficult. The creeping Islamization made it harder to distinguish between the system of Islam that I grew fearful of on one hand, with the Muslim friends I knew and loved on the other. I began to wonder if my Muslim friends even recognized the erosion of religious freedom that I felt due to the actions of an Islamist-leaning government. Though our friendships went deep, it was hard to resist being conditioned to fear Muslims – had they become my enemies?
I will never know how I could or should have overcome my fear in order to move towards them. My increasing awareness of the effects of Islamization in Malaysia should not have made me fear; it should have driven me to deeper compassion and friendships with them.
It is easy to demonize and fear a group when we do not have friendships with individuals from that group. Even with the personal knowledge I have of my Muslim friends, this fear is hard to shake. How much greater is the fear when it is bolstered by a lack of knowing individual Muslims?
Does our fear prevent us from seeing individual Muslims as the image-bearers they are? Does this fear prevent us from moving towards the Muslims in our neighborhoods with open arms and friendship? Are we more concerned with our own safety than the safety of refugees and displaced peoples from Islamic countries?
In my last post, I suggested that an awareness of Islam as a system was necessary for informing our engagement with Muslims: we need to be aware of how it can influence individual Muslims. However, no knowledge or perspective about this system changes the call to love them as neighbors, even at great personal cost. I’m convinced that our Muslim neighbors here in the US need the friendship of the church.
This friendship may be uncomfortable. In addition to crossing cultural barriers, some may worry that befriending Muslims may imply a tacit endorsement of Islam as a system. To this, I would say two things. First, we cannot properly understand Islam as a system separate from individual Muslims. Second, if we place preconditions on our love for others, we fail to understand the power of the Gospel.
In fact, this friendship may be costly. I can attest to how much it costs the Malaysian church to love Muslims. Even if the system and structure of Islam in Malaysia exerts great power against the church, the church is not exempt from loving its neighbors, some of whom may in fact be enemies. I believe the same call of Jesus to lay down our lives applies to us in the US, for we are part of the same church he has called.