I was born and raised in a small town in New Jersey, U.S.A. I lived in the U.S. for twenty-seven years, when, upon becoming Muslim and marrying a Malay woman, I moved to Malaysia. In this day and age of globalization and the “shrinking” of the world due to technological enhancements, being in Malaysia does not seem so far from home. Every day, all I have to do is click on the internet and I am suddenly transported back to the U.S. and all the news and American “culture” I can take. In addition, my parents can call me for only 12 cents a minute, so it’s not that much different than calling from home. The one thing I notice that is very different, however, is being Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country rather than being Muslim in the U.S. Islam in Malaysia has a distinctly different flavor than it does in the U.S., and everyday I am learning more and more what that flavor is and how it compares to Islam in the U.S.
It is amazing to read and hear stories about other westerners who have accepted Islam and moved to foreign lands to learn the religion. Or, those who have traveled to foreign lands only to accept Islam after learning about it during their journeys. Many western Muslims feel the urge to travel east to experience not only a deeper level of Islamic knowledge, but an Islamic culture that they cannot get in their western homelands. I, too, had this yearning, and being that my original exposure to Islam was through a Malay teacher, I had the desire to experience the religion “Malay-style.”
As one who accepted and experienced Islam only in the U.S., Malaysia was, at first, like a dream come true. So many mosques and suraus, there is never a problem finding a place to pray as it is in the U.S. (especially when traveling). With halal food everywhere, I hardly ever have to worry about whether I can eat the meat or not. Here, there is even a government department that ensures food is halal. Such things that Muslims here – and in many other Muslim countries I assume – take for granted, I find myself to be in grand appreciation of. I have met many Malays who have either traveled, worked or studied in the West and have experienced life without these conveniences. I enjoy talking with them and hearing about their experiences. It is interesting to see how much more they appreciate their home countries after returning from overseas. I guess that is why Allah SWT encourages us to travel the land seeking his wisdom. (“Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts (and minds) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? 22:46)
The current struggle in Malaysia for Muslims is multi-dimensional. Dealing with the effects of rapid economic development, an increasingly secular and hostile federal government, globalization, an inundation of newly created wealth, changes in society and lifestyle (more women in the workforce than ever before/80% of college students are female), has raised challenges for Muslims like never before. Like in many other countries in the world, as materialism and consumerism continue to encroach into everyday life and the society gradually moves more and more away from its moderate Islamic values, many Muslims who feel threatened by the negative effects of excessive materialism and western culture, and who choose to speak out against it are made to look like the ones on the extremes. In reality, however, most of these people have not changed, but in a culture that is becoming more heavily influenced by the west, these people are made to appear to be the ones on the fringes – the “fundamentalists” because of their insistence on the Islamic values of balanced living and justice. Essentially, they are only trying to preserve the very thing that they understand to be the source of their good fortune as a nation – the wholesome, family-oriented way of Islam.
The irony is that the powers-that-be insist that their policies are “developing” the country, yet they clearly seem to ignore that fact that there are other kinds of development – moral social and human for example – that must accompany economic development if they are to ensure the well-being of the people. As their policies indicate, however, they are focusing on the one – economic development – at the expense of the others. Such an unbalanced approach has obvious repercussions of which one only has to look west to understand.
Despite all the years of colonization, which the government is always quick to remind the public about – no one – not the British, not the Portuguese, could wipe Islam from the Malay culture. As hard as they tried, the colonizers could not do it. By the grace of Allah, Islam prevailed and Malay culture remained Islamic. Enter globalization, however, and through the lures of materialism and wealth, a gradual, yet subtle, erosion of traditional Malay culture – which is heavily based on Islamic adab – is evidently taking place.
Malaysia appears to be an Islamic country at a crossroads. It is in the thick of the globalization-information age revolution, and is dramatically feeling the affects of rapid economic, social and structural changes. Islam in Malaysia, on the other hand, is frequently in the headlines as the pro-Islamic party PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia) continues to push, and make great gains, in its drive to make Malaysia into the modern world’s first pluralistic Islamic state. With every inch of progress it makes, however, the government seems to react with more restrictive measures on its activities, claiming that PAS gatherings “threaten the peace and stability of the country.”
From a social perspective, the political situation in Malaysia has had a major divisive effect on the Muslim population, especially among the majority Malay Muslims. For the first time probably in its nation’s history, Malays are being divided on an issue that they used to champion as one people – Islam. But the direction and growing paranoia of the current government has led many to question the “Islamicity” of the ruling UMNO (United Malay National Organization) party, as many believe they are “selling out” the religion for the sake of economic development and their own preservation of power. This back and forth political squabbling has gotten to the point that now average Muslims are made to suffer, one example being the restriction on Islamic ceremahs (organized talks) in mosques and silencing of popular scholars throughout the country – major sources of Islamic knowledge for everyday people.
From an outsider’s perspective, there is tension in the air in regard to the current political situation. As the federal government continues its policies of further restricting PAS and its ally opposition parties’ activities, Malays will inevitably continue choosing sides and further divisions within the Muslim society will occur. Only time will tell how it will all play out in Malaysian society, with perhaps a decisive point being the next general election in 2004.
The U.S. is a place where Islam is growing, and growing fast. I will never forget all the wonderful Muslims I met when I first reverted to Islam. I came across Muslims from literally all over the world, many with a strong love and dedication to the deen and the desire to see it succeed in the U.S. Many of these people are simple, humble, peace-loving individuals who greatly appreciate the freedom they have in the U.S. to practice Islam without hindrance, provide for their families, and just live a quiet life.
Like the Prophet’s (SAW) struggle in the early years of his Prophethood, Muslims in the U.S. are trying to spread the religion and establish Islamic communities. Needless to say, these are both difficult, tireless tasks. For example, while living in the U.S., as one of the few Muslims in my workplace, I remember every day as a da’wah experience. Every interaction with my non-Muslim co-workers was an opportunity to either tell them about Islam, answer questions about it, or at least model it in my interactions with them. On the weekends, I would travel to New Jersey from Washington, D.C., to help my teacher at his Islamic school where he is working to establish an Islamic community literally from scratch. It is a 24-hour/7 day-a-week job for him and his devoted wife, and they truly set the example for me as far as dedication to the deen goes.
Thus, in the U.S., the struggle is one of building Islam from the ground up. The same shaytanic forces are at work in the U.S. as those in Malaysia, however, namely, greed and excessive materialism, which, unlike Malaysia to date, are a central part of the American culture. Many immigrant born-Muslims, particularly skilled laborers such as engineers, who come to the U.S. from poorer Islamic countries see the U.S. as a gold mine of opportunities never available to them before. These Muslims, experiencing the fruits of their full earning potential for the first time in their lives, often fall victim to the lures of the negative side of the American way of life and many times it is not until they see the effects of their lifestyle on their children, that they realize that implications of not adhering to a more Islamic lifestyle.
For Muslims in America, there is access to information, freedom of worship and assembly, freedom to give da’wah, and there are wonderful opportunities for interfaith dialogue and partnership with other religious communities. Furthermore, there are a growing number of Islamic communities forming all over the U.S. Schools, mosques, and Muslim businesses are springing up in some of the least expected corners of the country. The richness of the American Islamic experience can even be overwhelming at times, where, in one single mosque you can be praying with brothers and sisters from literally anywhere in the Islamic world.
All of the freedoms that America offers can also have a negative side for Muslims. Socially, American-style freedom often translates into many of the no-no’s that Islam forbids and that Muslims believe threaten the very heart of the Islamic way of life, one of modesty and simplicity. This is one reason why, from the outside, many Muslims appear to non-Muslims in America as anti-social or even ethno/religio-centric. The “they’re too good for us” perception is a result of a difference in lifestyle, and often culture as well. Many immigrant Muslims who come to America can feel threatened, insecure, and may not be confident enough to engage their neighbors. Unfortunately, however, there is also a tendency for Muslims to adopt a “holier than thou” attitude, purposely shunning and secluding themselves from others, which, in fact, is completely un-Islamic behavior and goes against the Prophet’s (SAW) example of humility, neighborliness and sharing Islam with the non-Muslims.
The America I grew up in was one of middle-class values – homogeneous, family-centered, two parents in the home, modest but comfortable surroundings, community-oriented, at least some level of religion (primarily Christian) prevalent – all in all, a pretty simplistic and peaceful lifestyle. However, the excessive wealth that has been created over the past two decades, fueled by the greed resulting from corporate American-style capitalism, has dramatically materialized and liberalized American culture to the extent that now it seems that virtually anything goes. This has obvious deleterious effects on society’s hub social institution, the family, and the results speak for themselves. Citing any number of statistics, the last census highlighted how badly damaged the American family is, and the effects can be seen in the overall well-being of the people at large, particularly the status of America’s children.
For Muslims, this environment makes it more difficult to be completely enmeshed in the American mainstream. Although Muslims are trying, and need to in fact, make themselves and the message of Islam seen and heard by American society in general, we also have to pick and choose how and where we get involved, so as to not compromise those things which are “uncompromisable” according to Allah.
Through my experiences in both America and Malaysia, I have, and continue to everyday, learn a great deal about Islam, and how it is applied in different contexts. It is quite an education when I reflect on it all and I only hope, Insha-Allah, that I am able to continue learning and somehow enrich the lives of others someday through my experiences in both the east and the west.