March marks 4 months since I’ve been living and studying in Malaysia and I’ll never be an ingrate to the life-changing and eye-opening experience I’ve had here thus far. However I felt growing up, I have never technically lived in an Islamic country and was alert to this fact when deliberating where to study during my compulsory period of studying abroad. I decided to opt for a Muslim country, much to the dismay of my parents, a decision seen to them to be a case of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire – a foolish and perhaps dangerous situation in their eyes. Why should their daughter leave Bradford -a city where we had only ever grown up with anti-Christian persecution through the Pakistani community in which we lived – only to spend 6 months in a nation whose Muslim population accounted for 60%? Nevertheless, I didn’t see why Malaysia would feel any different to west Bradford and in fact was looking forward to leaving my home city for dust. Anywhere but there.
I chose not to research into Malaysian politics, nor the religious scene between mainly Muslims and Christians which would be my usual points of interest and query. I preferred to enter the country for the first time as unaware and naaive as possible, something out of character for somebody who usually likes her background knowledge. In retrospect, I made little effort in getting acquainted with Malaysia factually in case of being bombarded with enough stories of religious/minority oppression or the rise of Islamic fanaticism. Having turned 21 last month, with much of my life feeling lifeless I was determined not to get depressed in leaving a city I’ve never really liked for a country that could potentially render me miserable all over again.
Our university campus is situated away from the hustle and bustle of daily Malaysian life, enveloped with an abundance of greenery and wandering dogs, evident of a typical jungle here as it transpires. Living and studying on the outskirts of a rural and inactive town initially disappointed me as it meant that in order to observe ordinary Malaysians as they conduct their daily business, to learn of the culture, customs and to travel, I would have to take a train which takes over an hour to reach a main city, such as Kuala Lumpur.
It soon became apparent how religiously and ethnically divided this country is. There is a clear divide between ethnic Malay, Chinese-Malaysian and Indian-Malaysian, with an obvious lack of interaction between them as you walk around country and campus. But in particular, I not only witnessed the zealotry and vigour with which many Malay Muslims display and practise their faith, I feel it too. It’s in the designated female-only carriages on public trains, in the hijabi-clad toddlers and youngsters pottering around the aisles of Tesco supermarkets; in the frequently packed prayer rooms built into every shopping mall and cinema complex that see Muslims stream into them around the clock, come the call to face East.
Islam is real and ardent within the walls of the campus and despite the plethora of religious identities visible to the eye – given the international comprisal of this private British University – it is the Sunni dominance I sense on a daily basis here. Whilst I recognise the fact that Malaysia is a Muslim nation, governed by Sharia law that all Malays are expected to abide under; I at least expected the university to be given the freedom to equally uphold a non-Islamic way of life. Technically speaking, Britain is not a Muslim country yet its private Islamic schools and institutions are hardly regulated and instead respectfully left alone to preach what they will. However, the same respect and affordance of religious freedom is not granted here and instead the prevailing tide of Sunni Islam goes on – partly due to the ratio of Muslim to Non-Muslim but more efficaciously, due to the active evangelistic activities of the student Islamic Society.
The Islamic Society is unescapable here, run predominantly by the Arab student population. Its daily booth of pamphlets, leaflets and Islamic texts never goes awry; neither is the make-shift wooden divide – used to separate the bearded men and niqab-clad women- whose hands are not even visible on account of the black gloves worn they wear, giving an insight into the lives of some of them who originate from the Middle East. Islamic talks, lectures and seminars are held on most weeks. Last week rounded off Discover Islam Week, an annual event where renowned Islamic figures are invited onto campus in order to share how and why they embraced their faith and hold topic seminars.
I decided to sit in a lecture given by Dr Bilal Philips, a Jamaican convert to Islam – a controversial man banned from the UK, Australia, Kenya, Philippines, Germany to state a few examples – a figure not estranged from arrests and deportations. I ended up walking out on him. The man had the complete freedom to denounce the sanctity of another man’s faith by telling the audience what was wrong with the Bible. I’m not saying that he secretly can’t doubt the validity of the Bible -every man to his own – but at the very least, the principles of respect and tolerance should have been applied to a mixed audience of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I know exactly the riots and violence that would have triggered had a Christian speaker denounced the Q’uran at the University of Bradford. The Press would have a field day.
I couldn’t help but feel sickened at the allowance of such a man onto university property -a preacher banned from numerous nations for his fanaticism regarding marital rape, suicide bombers, his possible links with Islamic terror organisations and now to be given a platform to denounce Christianity. In retrospect I shouldn’t have batted an eyelid- British authorities at large never held George Galloway accountable when declaring Bradford an ‘Israel-free zone’ so why wouldn’t a British university permit this Muslim man in this Muslim nation to write off Christian Scripture? Where would any opposing cavalry come running from?
I attended another talk where an ex-Buddhist now turned Muslim proceeded to display Islam as the model religion of peace, tolerance and love. I don’t fault or judge those who embrace Islam especially if they are intent on recognising the importance of a personal faith and the need to respect for other beliefs. However, the experience of witnessing him passionately state the definition of Islam as ‘willing submission’ unsettled me, especially upon realising this man’s overt dismissal of the spread of Islam via the sword – from the days of its inception towards much of the opposition it faced, to the period of the Ottoman Empire, to the newly coined Islamic State, wishing to return to the days of the Caliphate. And of course, personal experience dictates otherwise.
His strident pacing, smiles and apparent openness was wasted on me as I looked at this deceiver, clearly invited and willing to preach and convert. It bothered me that those non- Muslims in the audience, particularly those girls in relationships with some of the boys who had invited them, had no idea what they were being fed. I was distartled when my Vietnamese friend asked to borrow a scarf, in order to attend a lecture given at the campus Mosque. She had been asked by somebody else I was familiar with, someone I felt had pressured her into attending, to sit in the session and subsequently meet the speaker. My anger at this blatant charade of evangelism got the better of me as I explained to her the reality of the situation, to discourage her from her ignorance.
Questioning such speakers has been challenging, where a contradictory opinion or question deemed to be portray Islam negatively is immediately shut down, or unanswered as the lecturer embarks on a swift discourse. All in all, these Islamic events have been clear in their ambition to create new believers as the days roll on, unmistakably so when receiving emails from the Islamic Society asking their members to invite their ‘not-yet Muslim friends’ to such functions. An actual quote.
Contrast the campus Islamic scene with the Christian meetings and speakers invited to a British private institution. To expect the same freedom to preach and teach is laughable. Every guest speaker has been careful to watch his/her words given the warning by the university to avoid controversy and all talks are recorded. When Malaysia’s Speaker for the State of Selangor was invited by the Christian society to give her testimony and explain her rise in politics, she was barred from accessing the students, leaving us to attend her talk off campus. Christianity is suppressed in Malaysia I feel. The only Malaysian Christians I’ve encountered thus far are of Chinese-descent though never ethnic Malay, although this could be largely due to the discretion Christianity is exercising at least in the state I’m in.
Apart from 2 established Catholic Churches that I’ve passed in a town 30 minutes from campus, the different churches I have been exploring are unrecognisable, hidden from obvious sight. One has to clamber up a flight of steps found through a narrow alley-type slit, in a row of dilapidated shops; to worship in a small, rented and ventilated room. That for me says it all.