• Muslims make up over 60 percent of Malaysia’s 30-million strong population. (Getty Images)
Comment: The gentle, inclusive Islam of Sharon Verghis’s childhood in Malaysia remains one of her strongest and more enduring memories.
By
Sharon Verghis

19 Jan 2017 - 10:48 AM  UPDATED 19 Jan 2017 - 10:59 AM

For most of my childhood, the Muslim call to prayer in the old colonial port town of Malacca, Malaysia was my alarm clock. In the purple gloom of a tropical dawn, I’d drift out of sleep to the sound of the azan, or the call to worship, as the muezzin at the neighbourhood mosque performed his first religious ritual of the day. 

“Allahu Akbar” was a musical stream of notes, unfurling like a silk ribbon. 

I was born in 1973, a non-Muslim in a Muslim country. 

Malaysia is officially a secular country, Muslims making up over 60 percent of Malaysia’s 30-million strong population and with the Chinese, Indians and other racial groups forming sizeable ethnic and religious minorities. 

“Allahu Akbar” was a musical stream of notes, unfurling like a silk ribbon. 

Like so many in this multi-cultural, multi-racial nation, my family’s back-story is complex. My parents came from South India – my father at age six and my mother as a young woman. 

My three sisters and I grew up in a Catholic family in comfortable middle-class neighbourhoods outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Our friends came from a mix of backgrounds – Indian, like us, Chinese and Malay.

In the Malaysia I grew up in, we all mixed easily. To me, the Muslim faith was peaceful, warm and benign. My friends and I ate at each other’s homes, celebrated each other’s holidays. On Saturday mornings, an elderly teacher would come to our home to teach my sister and me the beautiful Arabic alphabet for writing Malay called Jawi. ‘Alif, ba, ta, sa’, we would chant after him. 

My aunty recalls wearing the baju kurung – the traditional Malay dress – in solidarity with her Muslim best friend during high school. In primary school, I would occasionally fast along in sympathy with my Malay school friends – or at least abstain from openly scoffing lollies – during the month of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. My mum, too, remembers ‘covertly’ supplying a lunch of rice and curry to our hungry Muslim gardener, Mohammed, because she felt sorry for him during the fast. 

In the evenings, the streets would fill with families breaking the fast at market stalls with giant platters of aromatic beef and chicken rendang. And on Eid-ul Fitr, or Hari Raya Puasa, the traditional Malaysian tradition of open house would see us flock to our Malay friends’ homes to gorge on kek lapis and pineapple tarts.

In the Malaysia I grew up in, we all mixed easily. To me, the Muslim faith was peaceful, warm and benign.

On the white sand beaches of Terengganu, Western tourists in bikinis mixed with Muslim families. My mother has fond memories of working with her medical assistant, Rahima, as a young doctor. “I didn’t speak Malay and she had broken English but she would help me translate.” The Malay patients were polite and respectful, she says. “Everything was tuan, puan – sir, madam. Their faith was just something they practiced - they respected other people’s religions.”

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Western culture was eagerly consumed regardless of religious backgrounds. We ate at McDonald’s and Wendy’s, watched blockbuster foreign movies – Crocodile Dundee was a particular hit – wore the latest fashions and listened to Top of the Pops and Madonna. This rich shared youth culture was far more important to us than where we worshipped – temple, mosque or church. 

It was only when we emigrated to Australia in 1988 that another, more malign form of Islam emerged on my consciousness. This was the type of Islam seen on the news, a militant, warped offshoot associated with terrorism which erupted in murderous spotfires all over the globe over the next few decades, from Tunisia to New York, from Nice to Turkey.

To me, it was strange and terrible.

I didn’t recognise it, couldn’t process it. How did the musical ‘Allahu Akbar’ of my childhood morph into the chant of a jihadi bent on murder?

Had Malaysia spawned a peculiarly inclusive and non-violent benign form of Islam or was I being too nostalgic? Had I simply not seen flaws in the fabric of faith around me?

I didn’t recognise it, couldn’t process it. How did the musical ‘Allahu Akbar’ of my childhood morph into the chant of a jihadi bent on murder?

Recently, I contacted some childhood school friends in Malaysia to discuss this. A mix of high-achieving professionals – a doctor, an oil company worker, a lawyer - they said that no, I wasn’t wrong - Islam had been largely as I recall when we were growing up: peaceful and respectful.  

“People like us who grew up in the 70s and 80s had friends of all races around us… Even during Ramadan, the Muslims often sat at the table and chatted while the rest of us were eating.” 

But in the years after my family emigrated to Australia, what had happened in Malaysia was a parallel politicisation of the religion by the ruling UMNO party and the hard-line Islamist party PAS in a search for votes, they said.

Some Malaysia watchers and local observers have also become concerned that a more hard-line Islam fuelled by imported Wahhabi/Salafist influences was leading to an increased fundamentalism, such as the rise of a more widespread application of sharia law in states like Kelantan. 

“We have been blessed in Malaysia with a long history of tolerance between the cultures and deep respect for freedom of religion. The Islam I know and learn is a religion that respects this too.”

But for many Malaysians, optimism reigns. They point to the booming Western tourism trade flourishing in Langkawi, Penang and other coastal areas. Over 30 million tourists travelled to the country last year.

They also cite the fact that freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Constitution, and that Chinese New Year, Christmas and Deepavali are national holidays alongside Islamic holy days. 

Nik Sunita Azura, a devout Muslim, tells SBS; “Malays are generally tolerant in nature and that’s why they can live in harmony with other races for so long. 

“In fact, Malaysians are unique in the sense that we allow different races in this country to practice their own culture, religion and education in their respective native languages, despite Islam being the federal religion.

“We have been blessed in Malaysia with a long history of tolerance between the cultures and deep respect for freedom of religion. The Islam I know and learn is a religion that respects this too.”


Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm from 18 January to 1 February 2017. Watch episode on below or catch up on all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand.

 
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